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How a Nazi-Era Berlin Airport Came to House 2,300 Refugees

Paige Vickers

Welcome back to The Architect's City, a monthly series inviting an emerging architect to reimagine an existing structure in his or her city, submitting a speculative proposal for Curbed readers. This month, we examine the reuse of the Tempelhof Airport in Berlin.

In a hall as massive as Tempelhof, tall pale wood bunk beds appear sized for a dollhouse. Tents that sleep 12 stretch barely to where the windows begin and domino out in white peaks through the hangar; humans are dwarfed alongside the massive support beams erected in the 1930s. Berlin's 300,000 square-meter Tempelhof Airport was initially constructed to symbolize the brawn of the Nazi party before visitors to its imagined capital Germania even landed. (The design worked: scenes of Panem, the fictional capital city of The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 2, were filmed at Tempelhof.) But in the last month, as it's been outfitted with accommodations for asylum-seekers, it has come to represent something entirely different.

Eight hundred thousand asylum-seekers are expected in Germany by the end of the year. In Berlin alone, a city with low vacancy rates and a booming population to begin with, some 58,000 refugees have already arrived this year. In the city's attempt to accommodate the influx, officials began looking to Tempelhof in October. In a certain light, the adaptation resembles an Architect's City project brought to life.

Constructed in 1934 atop a small existing airfield, Tempelhof was designed by German architect Ernst Sagebiel as the first structural manifestation of Nazi megalomania. Its enormous halls were meant to accommodate six million passengers at once. At the time, it was the largest building in Europe. Later, after WWII, American and British forces delivered food at Tempelhof during the Berlin airlift. Today, it is, by surface area, Europe's largest historically protected building, according to Berlin's tourism board.

Seven hangars fan out along 1,200 meters of a gentle arc. Within the curve, a cantilevered roof sheltered incoming planes and departing passengers. "It soars," said Norman Foster last summer in a T Magazine article in which architects defended the "most hated" buildings around the world. "If you were transported there and were to walk under that cantilever, you would be awestruck." Foster also defended the building's austere, "not so fascist" façade. Yet situated as it had been alongside a concentration camp, the building remained, he said, "redolent with all the most negative associations."

Those associations persist, yet now, three of those seven hangars function as housing for 2,300 asylum-seekers, who dwell in tents within the halls or false wall partitions of the trade-show variety. Problems exist: only two of the three hangars have indoor bathrooms and, unsurprising in such a cavernous space, heating is insufficient. But though this solution was slapdash—the private company contracted by the city to run the camp had "about a weekend" to set it up, a PR official told the UNHCR—it gestures towards both the long-term challenges and the possibilities of the freighted, enormous airport and its grounds.

Flight operations largely ceased at Tempelhof in 1975, though it would be another thirty years before a city referendum would permanently shutter the airport. Intervening years saw scant flights in or out of the airport, and most stayed within Germany. As airlines vacated the space, other tenants, including the police force and a flight insurance company, moved into small offices there. In the years surrounding its official closure in 2008, Tempelhof became a sort of screen onto which various desires for Berlin were projected: in 2006, a U.S. group led by former Estee Lauder CEO Fred Langhammer lobbied to convert the airport into a luxury clinic with its own runway; in 2013, the city hoped it might be developed into space for tech start-ups or other offices, part of the push to make Berlin more tech-centric.

In reality, though, the interior space has foundered even as the exterior has become a much-loved feature of Berlin civic life. In 2010, as its interior was used for occasional trade shows and marathon bib pickups, the land surrounding the former airport was officially declared 953 acres of parkland. The grounds now operate as a much loved, free-form park, fifteen minutes by bike from the center of town: barbecue pits, enormous lawns, and nearly four miles of bike and running paths along former airstrips. So loved is the park that in May 2014, a public referendum shattered city plans to develop along the outskirts of the park. Though the city has been growing rapidly, requiring new housing stock to keep rents affordable, the park was not to be touched by private real estate developers.

In November, Berlin's mayor called for the remaining hangars to be opened for asylum-seekers, which would make space for 5,000 more people but require the cancellation of dozens of scheduled events in the space, costing the city millions of dollars in revenue. Though logistical and design challenges are many, spaces like Tempelhof—large, in varied states of decay, emotionally fraught (Nazi holiday resorts also come to mind)—seem to offer possibilities for the current crisis.

Venice Architecture Biennale 2016 director Alejandro Aravena has commented recently that temporary refugee accommodations like tents represent "money that melts," urging architects and designers to conceive of more permanent solutions to the current crisis. Indeed, faced with both enormous need and enormous possibility, signs point to European architects and designers' increasing commentary and involvement. After all, as University of Michigan professor Andrew Herscher wrote in a recent article on "Digital Food," "Digital Shelter," and Voucher Humanitarianism, "the refugee camp might represent one of the last places where the interests of humanitarianism and architecture have intersected."

· Berlin coverage [Curbed]
· Thousands of Ikea Flatpack Shelters Have Gone to Syrian Refugees in 2015 [Curbed]
· The Architect's City archive [Curbed]