Berlin Brandenburg Airport: chronicle of a disaster

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This story if from Hochhaus, Germany’s leading English language newsletter. Written and edited by Jörg Luyken and Axel Bard Bringéus. Subscribe here for more stories like this.

If you live in Berlin, you might not know the name Meinhard von Gerkan, but you are sure to know his work.

The flamboyant architect was still in his 30s when he designed Tegel Airport, whose departure halls are still beloved for their convenience. Since reunification, he’s built the airy new Hauptbahnhof and Jakob-Kaiser-Haus, the administrative building next to the Reichstag, as well as renovated the Olympic Stadium.

It’s no exaggeration to say that von Gerkan is unrivalled for his impact on the cityscape of the reunified Berlin.

But there is another project that he surely would rather forget. For all his achievements, von Gerkan will always be associated with three words to send a chill down the spine of city planners the world over: Berlin Brandenburg Airport (BER).

Back in the 1990s the reinstated capital decided it needed a modern airport befitting its status. Its three Cold War airports were too small, too central, too old fashioned.

Von Gerkan won the design competition for the new airhub.

His drawings were elegant in their simplicity. A single glass terminal would be covered by a flat roof spanning from parking bay to piers “in one gesture.” Suspended on columns, the roof was a homage to Mies van de Rohe’s “schwebende Dach” at the Neue Nationalgalerie.

What a roof it was to be. Clean and pristine. Free from clutter like chimneys or air vents.

Achieving this goal wasn’t without complications, though. A building used by millions of people every year has requirements beyond the aesthetic. Fire safety, for instance. Getting around these problems wouldn’t be cheap.

But what’s money in the face of a work of art that would impress visitors for decades to come?

“Simple truth doesn’t get you anywhere in my profession,” von Gerkan candidly told der Spiegel in 2013. “The Opera house in Sydney would have never been built if people had known all along what it would cost. One has to fake the numbers.”

For a city as broke as Berlin at the turn of the century, “faking the numbers” meant presenting the public with a plan for a smaller, more humble building than that which would eventually emerge.

As one opposition politician wryly observed, “the ink was barely dry on the planning certificate before a wave of changes were implemented.” 

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A whole new floor was added in order to increase capacity. Berlin’s mayor, Klaus Wowereit, insisted on a docking bay for the enormous Airbus A380, even though German’s third largest airport wasn’t supposed to host the doubledecker jet.

Not all of the changes were to von Gerkan’s taste. Seeking to increase revenues to pay back its onerous debts, the city extended the shopping area to 2,000 square metres.

“Airports have been degraded into enormous shopping malls,” the architect would later comment.

Throughout it all though, von Gerkan got to keep his pristine roof. The price to be paid was a highly complex fire safety system, which would not channel smoke in the direction it prefers to go - up. Rising smoke, after all, would have required (ugly) chimneys.

Powerful extraction fans were instead installed that would suck the smoke under the building before channeling it away through underground pipes. Ensuring that the suction was strong enough - but not too strong - was a delicate balancing act. Thousands of flaps inside the pipes were to open and close in response to hundreds of different fire scenarios - all of it controlled by sophisticated software. If a flap closed at the wrong time, the resultant pressure could collapse a pipe.

While the system was functional in theory, no one knew if it would work in practice.

When building started in 2006, Mayor Wowereit declared it his “prestige project” and announced an opening date in November 2011 - coincidentally in the same year that he would be up for re-election.

Even before construction started, problems had arisen. The city gave up on its original idea to hand over the building site to a single construction company after all of the bids were suspiciously similar in size.

Wowereit and his colleague in Brandenburg, Matthias Platzeck, decided to oversee the project themselves. How hard could it be? With the two SPD men at the helm, Berlin’s Mittelstand would benefit, they promised. Dozens of different contracts were handed out, with each company having responsibility for a different aspect of the build.

By 2010 rumours were starting to leak out that all was not well. The man installed as Geschäftsführer, Rainer Schwarz, was reportedly overwhelmed by the increasing complexity. His technical assistant was studying for a PhD on the side, even as deadlines were being missed.

A not very ready airport in 2010 © Michael F. Mehnert

Major planning changes were enforced due to a change in EU law. The security areas needed to be widened, forcing the construction of “security pavilions” inside the terminal. 

With the opening day drawing ever closer, panic and self-delusion set in. Building started on new projects before planning had been granted; construction went on round the clock; situation reports were massaged before making their way up to Wowereit, who was known to flip out when confronted with bad news.

In 2010, when one of the major contractors went bust, Berlin’s mayor had little choice but to push back the opening by seven months. Opponents used the delay to attack him at the 2011 senate election. The charismatic “Wowie” was returned to power, but with a reduced majority.

The new deadline in June 2012 had to be met - the mayor wouldn’t tolerate anything less. 

But when tests were finally conducted on the fire system at the end of December 2011, it failed. The automatic flaps didn’t open and close as they were supposed to. As predicted, the extraction fans exerted too much pressure, causing pipes to implode.

There was no chance of the system gaining approval from the TÜV, the German safety regulator, in time. So the airport management came up with a Plan B, which they called a “man-machine interface.” According to the plan, work would continue on the fully automatic system after the opening day. In the interim, humans would respond to fires by manually opening and closing the laborýnth of flaps.

The proposal was “an act of desperation,” one engineer told a subsequent senate inquiry. “You can’t replace a fully automated system with humans. If a fire had broken out there would have been a catastrophe. No ventilator or flap could have been opened manually.”

When the district of Dahme-Spreewald, where the airport is situated, refused to go along with the plan, Wowereit conceded that the game was up. Just two weeks before opening, with tickets sold and the champagne practically on ice, the Flughafengesellschaft announced another delay, this time until 2013.

Eight years and several missed deadlines later, the airport will finally open next Saturday. 

Wowereit is long gone. The airport cost him his job and his reputation.

In 2013, a new management was brought in to rescue the project. One of these new “saviours” was subsequently found guilty of taking kickbacks for new contracts.

By the middle of the decade, with nothing happening on the building site, rumours swirled that the building would be ripped down. Only in 2017, did a level of stability arrive when the current Geschäftsführer Engelbert Lütke Daldrup was put in position.

And what became of von Gerkan and his roof?

Wowereit had the architect sacked in 2012, a move that the city had to U-turn on a year later after realizing the delays that would be created by no longer having him on board.

But the architect had to compromise on his roof.

In 2013, the new management decided that the subterranean fire safety system - which engineers had nicknamed “the monster” - was completely unworkable. A simpler system replaced it. The smoke was allowed to rise. Chimneys were built onto that spotless roof.

Von Gerkan always insisted the system could have worked were it not for political meddling.

“One of the reasons [for the system’s failure] was the political decision to award the contract for building it to two companies,” he told der Spiegel. “It was as if they’d asked Opel to build the front of a car and Mercedes to build the back.”

With just a hint of bitterness, the architect added that modern airports are no place for aesthetic fripperies.

“I came to realize that an airport needs to be as neutral as possible so that it doesn’t conflict with official requirements. A roof, supporting pillars, and that’s it. Finished.”


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Who we are:

Jörg Luyken: Journalist based in Berlin since 2014. His work has been published by German and English outlets including der Spiegel, die Welt, the Daily Telegraph and the Times. Formerly in the Middle East.

Axel Bard Bringéus: Started his career as a journalist for the leading Swedish daily Svenska Dagbladet and has spent the last decade in senior roles at Spotify and as a venture capital investor. In Berlin since 2011.