Where past meets future: second life of airports

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Once an object of fascination, later abandoned and closed, these airports got transformed and found a new life.

Berlin Tegel airport reimagined

Berlin Tegel Airport (TXL) was built in a record time of 90 days on the former military training site. It welcomed its first aircraft on November 5, 1948. In 1960, Air France was the first one to start regular service after a few years followed by Pan American World Airways (PanAm). It quickly became Berlin’s primary airport. In 2019, the airport held the title of the fourth busiest airport in Germany, overseeing over 24 million passengers. 

However, Tegel’s demand outgrew its capabilities. In 2012, TXL was meant to be closed down and substituted for a more spacious Berlin Brandenburg Airport (BER), but due to bumpy roads in building BER, Tegel got to be open all the way until November 2020. 

On November 8, 2020, the airport saw its last flight. Soon after, the German government announced plans to refit the closed airport into a temporary vaccination center. It would open its doors once the COVID-19 vaccine is widely available.

‘It is very important to us that this building remains public, for instance as a school, or research facilities, for exhibitions and many other events for the people of Berlin,” said Volkwin Marg, one of the architects behind Tegel Airport, in an interview to DW News. 

Marg’s hopes to keep the airport building open to the public might come true. Tegel airport will remain an object of fascination as the team of von Gerkan, Marg and Partners Architects has created a new vision for its development into a research and industrial park for urban technologies – the Berlin TXL-Urban Tech Republic. The land of 221 hectares will be available for up to 800 companies and it will house the Beuth University of Applied Sciences new technological park as well as an events and conference center. 

“We have planned a lot and have waited a long time for our starting permit, but now all the signs are on green to bring Berlin TXL, one of the largest development projects in Europe, to implementation. A city of the future will emerge here on 500 hectares, social, sustainable, highly innovative, with what is probably the largest timber-framed quarter in Europe”, says Dr. Philipp Bouteiller, managing director of Tegel Projekt GmbH. “The plans are ready, the usage concept is in place and we look forward to starting preparations for the first construction phase in 2021.”

Transformation of Hong Kong’s Kai Tak Airport

Built in 1925, Kai Tak International Airport was known to be a demanding airport for landing. Due to mountainous terrain, water all around and eventually tall apartment buildings, the airport has been given the nickname of “Kai Tak heart attack”. 

The fast growth of Hong Kong weighted on the airport’s capacity. Built to handle 24 million passengers per year, Kai Tak handled 29.5 million passengers in 1996. Eventually, the new airport was built on the island of Chek Lap Kok to replace Kai Tak, it opened on July 6, 1998.  

The old Kai Tak airport land is set to be transformed into a skyscraper in 2022. The 47-story, 200 meters tall tower is the project of Norwegian design studio Snøhetta. It aims to revive the area that has been abandoned since the closure of the airport. It will feature office floors, commercials and recreational facilities including shops, art exhibitions, restaurants and rooftop gardens. Plans for establishing a hotel have also been made. The whole project is estimated to cost around $4.12 billion.

While transforming the former airport site into one of the biggest central business districts in Hong Kong, the architect will try to honor the history of the former international airport.

“During our research we were impressed by the images of the dramatic landings that took place at the former Kai Tak airport,” Robert Greenwood, Snøhetta’s managing director in Asia, told CNN Travel. “In the design process, it was important to us to be respectful of and contribute to the preservation of the collective memory of many Hongkongers. The vast retail arcade space at Airside draws parallels to the typology of the airport terminal through its impressive scale and openness.”

Shanghai Longhua airport turned into park

Shanghai Longhua Airport, located in one of the world’s busiest cities, began airfield operations in 1922. Until 1949, Longhuan was the city’s only civilian airport. After 2000, it remained an emergency landing site for rescue work, police patrols, and fire-fighting operations to the southwest of the city.

Located on the banks of Shanghai’s Huangpu River, the airport was transformed into Xuhui Runway Park and received its first visitors in 2016. A linear form of the airport was kept and used to create lanes for vehicles, bicycles, and pedestrians. 

What once used to be a runway for airplanes, became rows of gardens and plants. Xuhui park offers a variety of attractions to enjoy nature: a wetland boardwalk, a bird-watching grove, a butterfly garden, and a sunken garden that doubles as an events venue. It also has an impressive near 6,000-square-foot rain garden. 

Five decommissioned oil tanks left in the airport territory will be transformed into galleries, designed by Open Architecture company. The oil tanks will serve as multi-functional exhibition, leisure and activity spaces.

From JFK airport terminal to hotel

Trans World Flight Center operated as a terminal at JFK airport, New York City, from 1962 to 2002. It was the hub for Trans World Airlines (TWA), which operated domestic and international routes from New York. In 2001, TWA filed for a bankruptcy, was acquired by American Airlines (A1G) (AAL) and had to close its terminal.

The terminal was designed by Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen, who was considered a master of mid-century modern architecture. The curved and winged terminal was aimed to remind passengers of glamorous flight experience. “We wanted passengers passing through the building to experience a fully-designed environment in which each part arises from another and everything belongs to the same formal world,” said Saarinen. 

In 2015, the negotiations to turn the terminal into a hotel started between JetBlue Airways, its partner, New York-based hotel developer MCR Development and Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. It was a complicated procedure as airport locations have to meet numerous restrictions around security and building dimensions. 

In 2019, the renovated TWA terminal finally opened its doors. It was transformed into a hotel with a pool overlooking the runway, a bar installed in a 1950s-era plane, restaurants and bars, and a largest in the world, a 200,000 square feet, hotel lobby. 

Temporary transformation: airport to cinema 

During the coronavirus crisis, some airports tried to be creative and find ways to use the airport facility without offering flights. 

In April 2020, with nearly all flights suspended, Vilnius Airport (VNO), Lithuania, used the quiet time at the airport and started offering drive-in cinema entertainment. During the first screening, around 150 people showed up to watch the movie in their vehicles. VNO has set up the largest screen in the Baltic States, approximately the size of a five-storey building, while the sound system operated through the car radios. The collaboration between VNO and International Film Festival (IFF) was aimed at supporting both the aviation and cinema industry as both have been hard-hit by the pandemic. 

“We want to create a unique experience,” said Algirdas Ramaška, general director of Vilnius IFF. “Going out onto an airport apron, which is usually only possible to access after check-in, is an exciting experience. I think these screenings will leave an impression on audiences that will last a lifetime.”

Similar project was organized in Glasgow Airport, Scotland and Birmingham Airport, the UK, in Summer 2020. 


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