We take a fond look at the history, legacy and future of Berlin’s Tegel airport following its recent retirement.
Visiting Berlin Tegel in the last few years of its service life felt like walking into an airport frozen in time. Yet, there was something about the concrete buildings, split-flap displays and giant computer desktop screens that made trips to TXL a unique airport experience.
Nostalgia for travel in a former era aside, entering the Tegel time machine had its perks. There were relatively short walks between terminals, excellent rail connections, and the ability to drive right up to Terminal A. And for many, this was central to the appeal of the West Berlin airport.
Yet this year, after 75 of service, Berlin closed the doors on one of its longest-serving airports. Feelings on the now-defunct TXL are mixed – split in a love-it-or-hate-it type situation. So, let’s look back on TXL and what made it into “the airport of short distances”.
Cold War Era beginnings
Tegel airport has its origins in the crux of Berlin’s post-WW2 rebuild. After the division of Berlin into the Soviet East and Allied West (and West into the British, French and American sectors), the Berlin Blockade necessitated the use of airdrops of supplies into West Berlin.
Soon it became apparent to the Allies that Tempelhof airport was incapable of handling the new high demand of aircraft. In control of the Tegel area, the French military authorities constructed a runway to support the relief planes flying into the city.
Breaking the record for the longest runway in Europe, the new 2,428 m runway and infrastructure formed what was to become Tegel airport. The eventual success of the airlift program led to Tegel becoming a hub for commercial operations.
Building an iconic airport
The cult status of Tegel has always derived from the airport’s unique architectural philosophy. Yet, in some ways, Tegel’s idiosyncratic appeal began before the bulk of its concrete was even laid.
The selection of architects for the project was an unusual one. The young and inexperienced Meinhard von Gerkan and Volkwin Marg’s architectural firm had yet to complete a single structure when awarded the Tegel project. However, this decision ended up defining Tegel’s early success.
Thankfully, the vision they laid out for the airport was enough to convince the city that they were the firm for the job. The planning for the airport began in 1965, with construction starting in 1970.
For its day, TXL’s iconic design was innovative and ingenious. The hexagonally shaped main Terminal A building perfectly suited the sleek functionality that Germany became associated with within the second half of the 20th century.
By creating a terminal building where passengers could circulate unrestricted, the young architects freed up many of the issues usually encountered at airports. For example, at Tegel, the gates lined the outside of the building, while passenger entrances cover the inside.
This innovation meant once passengers were inside the building, they were never too far away from their gate. One could simply walk around the terminal to find their place of departure or arrival. This reduced passenger hold-ups and reduced some of the stress associated with flying.
Each gate also featured its own check-in, security, luggage carousel and customs desk. This streamlined the passenger process, reducing the need for travellers to move needlessly through different sections. Its ease of operation led to Tegel earning the nickname “the airport of short distances”. But the airport’s other unique features also earned it admirers.
For one, Tegel was located relatively centrally in Berlin – meaning that passengers, crew and taxi drivers could reach the airport quickly. Moreover, anyone who has frequently flown to Berlin knows that, from the city centre, TXL was far easier to reach than its sibling on the East, Schönefeld.
Moreover, Tegel gained legions of admirers for its mid-century façade, now seen as an icon in Brutalist architecture. The main terminal’s coalescence of concrete, metal and glass created a vision for the future of the international airport – utilitarian yet distinct.
In this design, the passenger, not the shopper, was central to the airport’s ethos. And this remained true as Tegel continued to serve visitors to and from the German capital for the next 50 years.
Tegel’s success saw it adapt to the reunification of East and West and the wide variety of problems this placed on the city. Initially, city authorities aimed to close TXL after the completion of Berlin Brandenburg airport, around 2012. However, following the delays to the construction of the new airport, TXL continued to offer services through the 2010s.
It even outlived its older companion, Tempelhof – converted into a city park in 2008.
The End of TXL
The airport’s unique asceticism, however, was to contribute to its eventual demise. Tegel was an airport designed solely for easy flying. But in the modern era of travel, airports are expected to offer a lot more.
The airport’s distinct lack of restaurants, shops and entertainment made sense in the 1970s. But in the 2010s, it made TXL feel old-fashioned and unaccommodating to many flyers. Now, retail options are central to the airport experience, leaving airports like Tegel in the past.
Yet also, in many ways, TXL wasn’t the same airport as von Gerkan and Marg envisioned in the mid-1960s. Throughout its lifespan, authorities upgraded Tegel to include five terminals. However, these additions paled compared to the original terminal, primarily due to their intended “temporary” nature.
Flights from Terminal C represented the worst of both worlds when it comes to airports. Built resembling a giant porta-cabin, travelling through Terminal C featured tedious walks between sections and a finite range of shops and restaurants. As a result, Tegel simply felt outdated in comparison to other European capital’s airports.
And for many, the cramped add-on terminals of Tegel emphasised the distinct failure of Berlin to complete Brandenburg (BER) on time. So after the new airport finally became operational in 2020, it’s no surprise that many felt ambivalent towards keeping Tegel open.
Tegel’s shutdown became near certain after a city referendum on the airport failed to secure its future. The airport of short distances saw decommissioning officially on May 4th, 2021.
A new function
There is, however, some relief for fans of Tegel. Under new plans by the city, there will be a redevelopment of the airport’s buildings in upcoming years. These plans will retain plenty of TXL’s original character and much of its iconic structures.
The project will see the airport transformed into a research and industrial park, known as Berlin TXL – The Urban Tech Republic. Its primary purpose will be in the discovery and development of new urban technologies such as sustainable energy, construction and recycling solutions.
This should create spaces for 20,000 employees and around 1000 businesses of various sizes.
The plans also include a new residential district, referred to as the Schumacher Quartier. Developers will also convert the old terminal building into student accommodation. This housing will accommodate 5000 students and will help ease the housing crisis for young people within Berlin.
However, many will still mourn the loss of TXL. The airport has a cult following, especially online, where it has many dedicated social media pages. In recent years, there has also been numerous TXL books and photo collections released.
But outside of its looks, many will also miss Tegel for its functional legacy. Airports nowadays increasingly begin to resemble shopping malls and entertainment centres. For some, this is precisely what an airport should be – a place for leisure and spending before you fly.
Yet, some will remain nostalgic for the original purpose of airports such as Tegel, where the entire focus of the airport was getting you somewhere as smoothly and effortlessly as possible. Be this your home, business destination or a trip abroad.
TXL now joins Tempelhof in the Berlin airport hall of fame. But perhaps there is still inspiration left in what remains.
Words by Jonathan Ritchie