Zeitung Heute : Fashion’s new facade

Berlin’s famous disused airport has become an urban catwalk: the turbulent history of a unique tailor-made project

By Ralf Schönball
Gut eingepasst: 400 Meter lang ist die temporäre Fassade aus Stahlrohren und Kunststoff-Luftkissen.
Gut eingepasst: 400 Meter lang ist die temporäre Fassade aus Stahlrohren und Kunststoff-Luftkissen.Foto: promo

About a year ago, just a few weeks before the Berlin premiere of the world’s most important street and urban wear fashion tradefair, Dorothea Krömer was at the end of her tether. She was the official in charge of the Monument Protection Authority responsible for Tempelhof airport and she issued an order to stop all work at the site in preparation for the Bread & Butter tradefair. Red and white tape and a letter from the authority barred all entry to the building site. Suddenly the whole event was at risk.

The conservation officer had resorted to this extreme measure because there had been no agreement between the authority and the event management team as to how to secure the 30-ton artificial facade and its 12,000 steel girders to the roof of the listed monument, which stretches a few metres out onto the airfield.

Because of the time pressure the event’s organisers had begun to drill anchor points for the facade into the roof’s girders. This intervention in the structure of Europe’s biggest listed monument almost caused Krömer physical pain. She quickly stopped any further construction work with a decree, since no planning permission had been issued.

Today she laughs about it and says: „The organisers deserve praise“. The halt to building work was brief and instead of drilling, everything was clamped so that the facade will only be there for the fashion tradefair and not remain throughout the year, as had been initially planned. „It did cost the organisers a lot of money“, Krömer acknowledges. And because of that she praises the collaboration with the team Bread & Butter team and its chief executive Karl-Heinz Müller.

A „temporary facade“, as architects call it, was the ideal solution as far as Krömer was concerned. If the construction, which protects the event area from wind and weather in front of the hangars, had been permanent, it would have „significantly and negatively changed“ the original appearance of the airport, as conservation experts would say. This, says Krömer, was not compliant with the law.

„We will leave the airport without leaving any traces“, promises David Gil Braojos about 2011’s show. The event director of Bread & Butter is a calm man with dark stubble. He also says that „If the halt on building work back then had lasted for one more day, the opening wouldn’t have happened.“ He also looks back on it with a smile too and emphasises how the ambience of the historic airport is a huge asset to the event. „Visitors completely flip out when they see it for the first time“, he says.

And the organisers know how to fill such a historic stage: images from the 1920s and scenes from the movie Cotton Club decorate the balustrade of the former departure lounge, now the entrance area. The lighting in the seven hangars and on the airfield is designed in an Art-Deco style. A burlesque show and boxing matches took place at the opening party in the catering tent, which holds 4,000 people – a stylistic revival of what we call the Golden Twenties – and bands including Bonaparte are performing.

Over 800 employees will be doing the catering for the event, says Sebastian Hennecke, vice-president of Bread & Butter. Nobody will wait for food and drinks for more than 15 minutes. „Visitors should feel comfortable“, he says. And that’s how it will be: no queues at the entrance, a quick check-in, clean facilities – and of course good food.

Bread & Butter has around 100 employees. About 3,000 mechanics work during the busy phase of setting up the show at the former airport. Each tradefair costs several million euros and takes place twice a year. The huge interest in the event and the number of visitors have made Bread & Butter a real success. At this fourth tradefair no secret is being made of the mistakes that were made during the initial phase, such as when Berlin’s chief of police, Dieter Glietsch, suddenly appeared in the airport building. The route to his workplace was blocked because the Platz der Luftbrücke and the area surrounding the tradefair had been closed for traffic while the event was going on. The police headquarters are right there. He then had to be led to his desk through secret paths across the tradefair’s premises.

„Time pressure was the biggest risk to the project“, says Sven Lemiss, chief executive of the state-owned Berliner Immobilien Management (BIM). BIM manages the airport and gets it ready for tenants. There were only six months between the decision to give the site to Bread & Butter and opening the show. That was a very short time to sort out the logistics to change the airport into an exhibition space. Over that period there were some 25 companies there at the same time. Over 20 kilometres of high and low voltage cables were installed as well as 2.5 kilometres of heating pipes, 23 air heating devices and 60 new emergency exit doors.

BIM invested around five million euros in the airport building project to make Bread & Butter possible. „We will get all this money back in less than two years“, says Lemiss. It isn’t just the fashion fair that profits from the reconstruction and new built-in components. Other organisers can rent the disused airport in the period between the two dates that are reserved for the fashion shows.

But the show wouldn’t have been possible without some changes to the basic structure of the building. Gangways had to be created between the separated hangars. A small workshop in one of the hangars had to be knocked down. And emergency exit doors were built into the rolling gates of the hangars, but they are invisible from the outside. Krömer calls it a „wallpaper door“, like those invisible doors that lead the way into secret passageways in baroque castles. They are another example of the compromises that had to be made by the authorities and organisers in adapting the airport.

The former airport is so spectacular, too, because there are several layers of building work inside it. There’s the original construction and also the bits that were built by the allies in the 1950s. The glass walls which separated arriving passengers from departing ones are one example. They were another obstacle for the tradefair, but a compromise was found. The skylights remained and so did smaller parts of the glass construction. The panels that were removed were put in front of the walls. „This is how the floor plan can still be seen“, says a satisfied Krömer.

But the dress rehearsal a year ago nearly ended in disaster – and the Schöneberg company System 180, mainly known for its modular office furniture, was severely tested. On the day of final check of the 400-metre-long temporary facade underneath the floating roof of the airport, a lorry crashed into the construction of steel tubes and plastic cushions. Instead of celebrating the completion of the construction work, the architects and mechanics had to mend the damage under extreme time pressure. „It is still a mystery to me how the driver managed to cause this“, says architect Christoph Blanc. Luckily the company's office was only ten minutes away from the airfield – a company from, say, the Netherlands or Portugal or any other country would have found the repair work almost impossible to carry out.

But the people from System 180 succeeded and the biggest international show for urban wear celebrated its highly acclaimed Berlin opening in the reconstructed exhibition space a week or so later. It was also the opening for the new artificial facade. „This was our first air cushion project“, says Blanc, who before that had only experimented with models. Air cushions? Yes, because the two plastic layers between the steel girders are filled with air and then form cushions that are similar to airbeds. The cushions are not only pretty to look at, because Bread & Butter have divided them up into a colourfully lit up diamond pattern, but they also work as an insulation wall and protection from the cold weather.

Bread & Butter’s second year has made the construction of the facade a routine operation. But there's always something else to improve on. Because the major exhibitors such as Levi’s, Diesel or Wrangler are putting up their own tents on the airfield, they will be connected to the main stage by a tunnel. „They will be docked onto our facade like aeroplanes onto the departure gates“, says Blanc. This is another way of remembering the former function of the biggest listed monument in Europe.

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