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The NY Times Hearts Nazi Architecture

The Tempelhof Airport in Berlin is to be closed and New York Times art critic Michael Kimmelman – who for some reason is based in the German capital – is sad.

The decision follows a public referendum on “saving” Tempelhof for which only 22% of Berlin’s eligible voters bothered to turn out. “On the eve of the 60th anniversary of the historic, American-led airlift to supply the besieged capital, the mayor is going ahead with plans to close the airport by year’s end,” Kimmelman writes in a panegyric to Tempelhof that appeared in the paper last week, “How sad.”

The Times headline stylizes Tempelhof into “the airport that saved Berlin.” But it is not the airport’s well-known role in the Berlin airlift that inspires Kimmelman’s nostalgia. It is rather the prospect of “losing” the building itself: a somewhat metaphysical concern, since, as Kimmelman himself acknowledges in passing, it is by no means clear that the decision to close the airport will lead to its being razed in any case. Tempelhof, Kimmelman declares, is Europe’s “most beautiful” airport. “Certain places, like certain works of music and love affairs, inspire bonds of affection that transcend logic and can’t be expressed in profit and loss,” he writes giving full rein to his emotions, “It doesn’t matter whether they’re great cultural monuments or civic symbols. Tempelhof also happens to be those things.” It is also, Kimmelman says, a “glorious time capsule of mid-century.”

Mid-century? The description of Tempelhof as a “time capsule” is surely appropriate, though Kimmelman’s qualification of it as a “glorious” one should give serious cause to pause. For the time that has been captured in the stern, monumental contours of the edifice happens to be none other than the darkest period in Germany’s and Europe’s history: namely, that of the Third Reich. With its bunker-like solidity, imposing limestone facades, and grimly repetitive neo-classical forms, the object of Kimmelman’s affections – the “great cultural monument” and “civic symbol” – is in fact one of the most unmistakable specimens of Nazi architecture remaining in Berlin today.

The other two major examples are Werner March’s Olympic Stadium, which was built for the infamous 1936 Nazi Olympic Games, and the Reich Air Transport Ministry, which currently houses the German Ministry of Finance. The latter was designed by the same Nazi architect, Ernst Sagebiel, who would likewise design Tempelhof. Sagebiel, incidentally, was not only a Nazi architect in the sense of having been one of the major contributors – along with the likes of March and Hitler’s chief architectural advisor Albert Speer – to the development of the characteristically Nazi architectural style. He was also, of course, a Nazi party member and, for good measure, a member of the paramilitary SA as well.

But the primary source of Nazi architectural ideas was, of course, the “Führer,” Adolf Hitler, himself. As is well known – though seemingly not to Michael Kimmelman – Hitler fancied himself something of an amateur architect in his own right and considered architecture to be the most important form of artistic expression for the would-be political “ideals” and, above all, the power of the new German Reich. It was precisely for the purpose of transforming Berlin into an adequate expression of German might that Hitler in 1937 appointed Speer as the “Chief Building Inspector for the Capital of the Reich.” Hitler is known to have personally intervened in the planning of some of the most famous or infamous architectural projects of the Third Reich – such as the Olympic Stadium or the Congress Hall in Nuremberg – and he is reputed to have done so as well in the case of Tempelhof. If a 1997 article from the Times’s German partner publication Der Spiegel is to be believed, the Führer even helped to decide upon the main building’s characteristically curved shape, which, combined with its enormous length of over 1200 meters, renders it virtually impossible to view as a whole from ground level. It is also said to have been Hitler who was responsible for the curious decision to locate what was supposed to become the “air travel crossroads of Europe” right in the middle of downtown.

But even leaving aside whatever personal touches the Führer may have seen fit to add, Sagebiel’s building displays virtually all the most characteristic features of Nazi “prestige” architecture: the preference for massive stone surfaces on both the exterior and interior, the obligatory inclusion of a high-ceilinged mausoleum-like “hall of honor,” the foregoing of decorative detail on the façade – apart from the still visible imperial eagles (the swastikas have been removed) – and, of course, the gargantuan dimensions. What Nazi buildings lack in elegance or flair, they make up for in sheer size. Size indeed, as is already evident in Hitler’s reflections on architecture in chapter 10 of Mein Kampf, was the Führer’s single overriding architectural concern. Nazi buildings were not supposed to be beautiful. They were supposed to be big: bigger than any that had been built before. Speer himself would later describe the architectural style of the Third Reich as “built megalomania.” Tempelhof – the largest structure the Nazis ever succeeded in building – is perhaps the clearest existing embodiment of this megalomania. It was built to accommodate some 30 times as many passengers as actually passed through it at the time of its opening. It is indeed its megalomaniacal dimensions – combined with the central location – that have invariably spelt its doom as a practically useful airport.

Europe’s “most beautiful” airport? (photo by Vogelwarte)

(For the Time’s own pictorial presentation of “beautiful” Tempelhof, see the slideshow here.)

Kimmelman does fleetingly acknowledge Tempelhof’s connections to the Third Reich. It was, he says, supposed to be “a triumphal entryway into the new Germania, smack in the heart of Berlin.” The knowing remark is in fact a historical howler: the Nazis did not refer to Germany or their envisioned German Reich as “Germania”; according to the standard accounts, it was rather Berlin itself that was supposed to be renamed “Germania” following the completion of Hitler’s and Speer’s rebuilding plans. But what is most startling is just how insouciant Kimmelman and his editors appear to be about the connection. “And there it still is,” he writes, “a 15-minute taxi ride from the Brandenburg Gate, dozing in the spring sun, the finest work of Berlin architecture surviving from that era.” As if “that era” was somehow known for fine works of architecture! Tempelhof is, Kimmelman continues, “a soaring, light-filled, surprisingly welcoming space.” Surprising indeed. The Führer always said that he was building “for eternity.” He would undoubtedly be proud to find the vestiges of his Reich being shown so much love by the esteemed critic of the New York Times.

Following the lead of commentators in the German media, Kimmelman and the Times preferred to focus on the comforting associations of Tempelhof with the Berlin airlift. But most Berliners will have on some level understood that the referendum on Tempelhof was, in effect, a referendum on a more substantial and troubling part of the German past. By way of the imaginary campaign poster reproduced below, the Berlin-based blog “Spreeblick” provided an incisive and amusing graphic representation of the implicit meaning of a “yes” vote.

The picture is, of course, of Adolf Hitler, shown while conferring with his chief architectural advisor Albert Speer. The caption reads: “It wasn’t all bad — Save Tempelhof! [Vote] Yes.”

Whereas Kimmelman and other nostalgic admirers of the Third Reich may be saddened by the outcome, the rest of us can only be encouraged by the fact that so few Berliners felt the need to “save” Tempelhof.

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