Halting in a Space of Total Movement: Politics and Spatial Orders at Tegel Airport



By Philip Geisler

Sometimes, an academic journey begins with rebellion. The transregional is the signature of transition. Transregional studies and trans-aesthetic phenomena include processes of transition as an essential element. Analogously, for researchers in search of traces, transition becomes an essential element enabling transregional analysis. This renders spaces of transition, of change and transit, central for reflections about such aesthetics. In this sense, they must become aesthetic spaces and objects of research of high relevance themselves: in historic perspectives in order to understand past processes of mobility as well as in a meta-perspective aiming to understand the production of academic knowledge itself. However, in a time of high-speed traveling, the function of a transition space such as an airport becomes merely to put it behind oneself. Narration takes time and withdraws from acceleration: Train stations, airports and other transit stations lose their aesthetic narratives. Yet, to know requires to draw a conclusion (lat.: concludere), meaning to halt (Hegel: The Science of Logic II). Narratives incorporate halts. This seems to be the paradox of transition-spaces: They are defined by mobility and ever-growing speed. They can only be understood, though, by opposing their very purpose. So, starting our traveling seminar to India, we rebelled. We halted at Tegel Airport:

A part of the Art Histories group, in the transition space at Airport Tegel on January 25th, 2014

A part of the Art Histories group, in the transition space at Airport Tegel on January 25th, 2014. Photo: Art Histories and Aesthetic Practices

From a transregional perspective, Tegel airport is a captivating space of both transition and negotiation. In fact, it reveals a continuous connection between local/ national/ international politics and the history of spatial orders at the airport grounds. A unique political situation in 1948, with West Berlin being enclosed by Soviet power, created the need for a new airport, which roots the space in a need to fulfil both a political-military and a social purpose. Until today, this moment of origin has continued to strongly and repeatedly influence the airports function and design. This becomes particularly obvious, when taking into consideration how in 2011 the renowned spatial structure helped to successfully argue for the preservation of the building which found itself in a changed political context and after the opening of Berlin-Brandenburg International Airport would not be used as an airdrome any more.

The place’s history of air traffic started early: Around 1900, the First Prussian Airship Battalion experimented with new technologies in airship construction. In 1906, a large, square shaped airship hangar was the only built structure on the field. After the beginning of World War One, new structures for the education of airship troops and the development of the site as a central airship station were planned. As a consequence of the Treaty of Versailles, not allowing German powers any redevelopment of air forces, all architecture was demolished. In 1930, Tegel became a rocket experimentation ground under the conduct of the constructors Rudolf Nebel and Wernher von Braun who experimented with rocket technology also after the takeover of the Nazi regime. During World War Two, the ground was used as a military air force training area. As stated, the terrain was reconnected with an airport function out of need considering the Soviet blockade of West Berlin in 1948. The airports in Gatow and Tempelhof could not serve the aim of a continuous Berlin Airlift due to lacks of capacities. This is why plans were created to establish a new airfield in the French ruled Sector, precisely in this very area within the Jungfern-heath in Tegel with a distance of 11 kilometres to the Berlin city centre. Within 85 days, two lanes and some temporary buildings had been established. Each day, 362 airplanes arrived most of the time transporting fuel to West Berlin. In the course of a dispute over air rights of national airlines between Great Britain, the US and France, the latter decided to use parts of Tegel airport for civic air traffic in 1959 and hand this section over to the newly established Berlin Flight Association. Only the occupation forces were allowed to run air traffic in Germany. First provisional terminal buildings were set up. When the first intercontinental flight from Tegel to New York was taking off, this caused a serious dispute between the US and the Soviet Union as formally, such plans were still to be approved by the Soviet power. Three terminal pavilions were created in 1965. As the number of passengers and flights permanently increased and capacities came to a limit in Tegel North, plans were set up for a completely new airport building south of the former airfield. In 1960, negotiations between the French and the Berlin Senate, began and in 1966, the architects von Gerkan, Marg and Nickels satisfied the jury with their concept of an airport of short ways and quick check-in of passengers. The building was established between 1969 and 1974. In 1988 it was named “Airport Otto Lilienthal”. Tegel North is until today used as a military and government airport.

Detail of the ceiling at Tegel Airport, transition space. Photo: Art Histories and Aesthetic Practices

Detail of the ceiling at Tegel Airport, transition space. Photo: Art Histories and Aesthetic Practices

The model by Meinhard von Gerkan, Volkwin Marg and Klaus Nickels, today globally renowned architects under the name gmp, was based on a double hexagonal structure under the geometric ordering principle of a triangle layout. Functions were to be transformed into geometric forms, which became a leitmotif of the whole compound. The drive-in airport was originally constructed based on this basic triangle structure in every detail, from its outside terminal buildings and functional airfield architecture to inside ceilings, floors, staircases and furniture. The material was glass, steel and concrete. The geometric order of the triangle and hexagonal layout in the ground plan was mirrored in the elevation plan, such as in porches of waiting halls, the pillars, seats and floor tiles. The architects created a modern and pioneering design of concrete shell construction with visible pillars and beams, achieving a new standard in German contemporary architecture, which after the war had been struggling with finding its own identity. The airport was based on the model of the Köln/Bonn airport established in 1970 and on earlier designs of gmp, which became typical for German architecture of the 70s. The Berlin approach to airport architecture was even thought to spread globally as a new idiom – which in fact did not happen as airport managers realized the benefits of a shopping mall airport concept, in which passengers pass as many stores, restaurants and profitable spots as possible. In Tegel, passengers could now get off vehicles in the centre of the hexagons in front of their check-in counter, with a mere distance of 35 metres to their boarding gate. The round form of the terminals reduced walking distances when changing planes on transfer flights. Even though two terminals were originally planned, only one has been built. While in the central building, all general facilities are located (management, offices), the terminal hexagon mainly serves check in purposes. Arrivals and departures are located on one level, two waiting sections that can be connected are followed by one baggage claim section (see picture). The ground level contains technical departments, the two upper floors are used as office areas and event locations. Besides the decentralized check-in-system, the plans for the new airport buildings included 14 modern bridges, event locations, restaurants and noise-insulating architectural tents for engine test runs. Furthermore, until today, the building contains a number of art pieces which are dedicated to the topic of flying and weight. All over the airport, from parking lots to the roof terrace, sculptures, pictures and installations by some central contemporary German artists are displayed. The airport incorporated a psychologically important sign: It signalled the connection of the West-Berlin isle and its inhabitants to the Western world. Connectivity through air traffic and its architectural representative became a central part of the maintenance of the people’s identity and a visible and present affiliation. A worldly renowned and globally interconnected airport signalled both belonging and the possibility of escape and secureness.

Since 1987, when passenger numbers had increased highly and Tegel had become the most important airport in West-Berlin, the question of the construction of the originally planned second terminal building was raised again. Furthermore, global politics had played a major role in this debate again: During his famous Berlin speech, Ronald Reagan created the vision of establishing Berlin as a global hub airport place. Consequently, in 1988 the American airlines opened new routes from Tegel and capacities quickly reached a limit. For this reason, the Berlin Flight Association outlined a three-step-plan for the development of Tegel airport including firstly, to extend terminal points in a new passenger hall, secondly establishing new parking lots and offices and finally constructing the originally planned terminal B. However, when the second step was put into practice, the newly elected government of social democrats and the green party stopped every action leading towards an increase of air traffic. A second time, the twin-hexagonal building was not accomplished due to specific political reasons and it was only put back on the public agenda in the course of the German reunion in 1990, when finally German airlines were allowed to use Tegel airport. Again, in this later course of debates, the model was not established as in 1996, the airport holding voted for the closure of all Berlin airports after the opening of Berlin Brandenburg International. Still, until 2008, new buildings were erected and modernization works were in progress as the passenger numbers increased around 3 to 10 per cent each year due to successful airport management within new trends of low-budget flights, city shuttles and the raised air traffic in Tegel after the closure of Tempelhof. Part of these processes were a new parking block in 2004 and a second terminal in lightweight construction even in 2005, which today is terminal C, so that Tegel today contains five terminal buildings, the tower and further functional architecture.

The Art Histories group discussing the airport structures. Photo: Art Histories and Aesthetic Practices.

The Art Histories group discussing the airport structures. Photo: Art Histories and Aesthetic Practices

The current plans for the area of Tegel airport after the uncertain opening of Berlin-Brandenburg International include an immediate moving of the airports traffic, its staff and infrastructure to Schönefeld. After an initiative of the architect von Gerkan for the preservation of the spatial structure and the use as a centre for climate protection, regenerative energies and sustainable construction, it is now planned to turn Tegel and its architecture into “Berlin TXL – The Urban Tech Republic” with the renowned terminal building being the new heart and urban nucleus of a compound of start ups, universities, research centres and industrial companies dedicated to urban technologies.

This is the historical background of a starting point of a journey of knowledge. It tells about the production of conditions and historic layers of transregional research. Tegel, as a space of transition, affects our perception during and after transit. In order to reflect on it, one has to oppose it. Sometimes, knowledge starts with rebellion.

Philip Geisler studied media studies at the Medienakademie Berlin, as well as art history, Islamic studies and political science at the Free University Berlin. He is Student Assistant of the research program Art Histories and Aesthetic Practices.

This text was produced in the context of the Art Histories and Aesthetic Practices Travelling Seminar 2014: “Spatial Orders: Aesthetics, Politics, Religion”


Barkhofen, Eva-Maria (Hrsg.): gmp – Architekten von Gerkan, Marg und Partner, Band 3: Berliner Bauten und Projekte 1965-2005, Jovis, Berlin 2005.

Endlich, Stefanie: Kunst am Flughafen Berlin-Tegel – Bilder, Skulpturen, Plastiken, Berliner Flughafen Gesellschaft, Berlin 1985.

Mehlin, Adrian: Zukunftsraum Flughafen Tegel: Der Werkstattprozess, Senatsverwaltung für Stadtentwicklung, Berlin 2011.

Prüfer, Tillmann: Wir dachten, es wird ein weltweites Vorbild, URL: http://www.zeit.de/2012/04/Flughafen-Tegel-Gerkan, Date: 20.01.2014.

von Przychowski, Hans/ During, Rainer W.: Die Berliner Flughäfen – Johannisthal, Tempelhof, Gatow, Tegel, Schönefeld, GeraMond, München 2011.



Citation: Philip Geisler, Halting in a Space of Total Movement: Politics and Spatial Orders at Tegel Airport, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 02.09.2014 https://trafo.hypotheses.org/1214.

Diesen Blogbeitrag zitieren
Forum Transregionale Studien (2014, 2. September). Halting in a Space of Total Movement: Politics and Spatial Orders at Tegel Airport. TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research. Abgerufen am 14. Juni 2024, von https://doi.org/10.58079/usf3

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The Berlin-based Forum Transregionale Studien promotes the internationalization of research in the humanities and social sciences. It provides scope for collaboration among researchers with different regional and disciplinary perspectives and appoints researchers from all over the world as Fellows. More...

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