Berlin’s Airport Garden

Unless you are boarding a plane, it’s rare to step onto an airfield. No matter how many times you do it, walking the runway at Berlin’s Tempelhof Airport remains novel in its unfamiliarity. For Berlin’s apartment dwellers like me, the vast space reminds us how important it is to be outside, surrounded by plants and trees. As you enter via the airfield’s main gate and onto the asphalt runway, your eyes are immediately drawn to the sprawling garden. Visible at a distance, the curious patchwork of raised beds and disparate wooden structures form an uneven silhouette against the sky. It beckons you.

Berlin’s beloved community garden landed at Tempelhofer Feld in April 2011. The value of such spaces is self-evident in any city. But seldom are gardens built on reclaimed airfields. Nor do they come imbued with the weighty history buried deep in Templehof’s unusable soil. The airfield’s past completely contrasts with its present-day function as a place where locals go to play and relax.

Designed in the shape of an eagle in flight by the National Socialist (Nazi) government, Berlin Tempelhof Airport opened in 1923. The modernist limestone building became one of Europe’s busiest airports before the horror of World War Two, after which the site became the base for the Berlin Airlift. During the Cold War, Western Allies flew planes in and out of the airfield, dispersing food to West Berliners. The airport operated after Germany’s reunification until 2008 when it closed to air traffic.

Squatters occupied the airport until local government took action, inviting the public to lodge proposals for using the space. Only ten per cent of some 200 applications were selected, and the airfield began its transformation into one of Berlin’s biggest green spaces.

“You had to prove that you were able to do what you propose: that you have the means and the experience to actually realise your project,” says Christophe Kotanyi, one of the garden’s co-founders. Spanning a 5000-square-metre space (a blip in the park’s 940 acres), the garden is run by two organisations, Allmende-Kontor and Stadtteilgarten Schillerkiez. Christophe belongs to the former. He explains that the German word Allmende means ‘commons’, but is rarely used in contemporary German vocabulary. “Allmende is an ancient word that was very common in the Middle Ages. Every village had their commons: an area where the peasants could do their farming,” he explains. “In Karl Marx’s Das Kapital, the most famous chapter is the enclosure of the commons. Very few people know that. Since the end of the 18th century, that word has become obsolete. Our idea for the garden is to create ‘an office for commons’ to remind people about this concept.”

It’s working. What started as 10 raised beds now spans 300. To my unassuming eye, it’s impossible to distinguish a methodic arrangement of plots. I’m sure there is one, but the rambling layout is inviting rather than labyrinthine. The open sky helps. On the day I visit, kites fly overhead as skateboarders and windsurfers traverse the garden’s outskirts. You cannot help but feel relaxed.

Accessing the garden is effortless. While the wider park is locked at night, Christophe informs me the garden was permitted on condition there would be no fence surrounding it: it must be accessible to the public. “People come and are very impressed how beautiful it is. The only thing we ask is that [people] don’t take the tomatoes, because they should be collected by those who planted them. Most people respect that, it is fantastic. They behave like [they are] in a museum. They enjoy it, they don’t touch. It’s very interesting.” Having grown up in suburban Melbourne where it wasn’t uncommon to wake up to find nature strips full of newly planted shoots destroyed overnight, this amazes me. What about theft? “We were surprised there are very few. In fact, we had systematic thefts, and discovered it was mostly our own gardeners who were taking from the others,” he says, laughing.

What saves us is social control. Which is the principle of a community garden. Like in a village, everyone sees everything.”

Mistaking the garden for a museum is believable. The grounds host a bricolage of found objects. Coat hangers and bicycle wheel frames reimagined as windmills. Skateboards fashioned into chair backs, bathtubs used as raised beds. It is an assembly of reclaimed wood and scattered foliage and flowers that work imperfectly together.

Then there is one gardener using the space to host a public installation. Australian artist Gabriella Hirst belongs to the Stadtteilgarten Schillerkiez section, where her Peacetime Battlefield has resided since 2014. “I was living for about a year and a half in the Schillerkiez [Schiller neighourbood]. I was jogging here every day, and started collecting these flowers and keeping them in my hof [courtyard]. They were just dying. I needed some sun, so I asked a gardener who was in here one day, ‘How does this work?’”

While many of the raised beds are used for growing produce, Gabriella’s garden is entirely made of flowers. Specifically flowers named in commemoration of battles and wars. “The idea initially came up when I first moved to Europe,” Gabriella explains. “I was living in Paris on a residency, and by accident came across this rose called La Marne while researching for another project. Then I found it was named after the “First Battle of La Marne,” and it piqued my interest. I kept looking for different flora from this area around where the First World War trenches were, and found Verdun. It just went on from there: a research project into what flowers that are named after battles and in commemoration of battles, and why,” she says, seated beside me on a bench fellow gardeners found for her.

It’s not the first gift Gabriella has received since joining the garden. “In one of my first weeks here, [neighbouring gardener] Michaela had a book for me which she got at a second-hand shop about roses and how to care for them,” she tells me.

I also have these incredibly generous gardeners who will take care of it for me when I’m not here. I feel so lucky just to have met these lovely, generous and patient people. That’s something I’ve found in these gardens. I’ll say, ‘I need to plant this, what do I do?’ and everyone’s just a bit of an amateur, which is really nice. It’s just people trying stuff out.”

For Christoph, Allmende-Kontor is a political project. “Today we have two notions of land: private property and public property. The commons are the third category.” Berliners value their green space. This is confirmed by the Kleingärten [small garden] communities one sees when taking a train on the city’s outskirts. Allotments of land alongside a tiny house or shed are used by individuals living in apartments for growing their own food and vegetables. These remain private property. But everyone is welcome to enjoy Tempelhof’s community gardens. Some are active participants like Christoph and Gabriella. Others, like me, stop by every other weekend to sit on one of the wooden benches and take it all in.