Created in the middle of the Cold War, little Tegel holds iconic status even after its closure. Now it will be transformed into a “pole of diversity” and a field for an urban, ecological and social experiment. It’s not every day that an area of 230 hectares becomes available in a fast-growing European metropolis, where housing is difficult to find and rents are high . But that’s what happened on May 5, 2021, when Berlin’s stubborn Tegel Airport gave way to Project Tegel, one of Europe’s biggest urbanization plans.
Opened in 1974, in the northwest of the capital, the airport has remained well beyond its expiration date. Originally designed to handle around 2.5 million passengers a year, it broke a record 24.2 million passengers a year before being replaced by the new Berlin-Brandenburg Airport (BER) in 2020.
At the same time, despite the covid-19 pandemic, the German capital maintained its tendency to house more and more innovative companies, ranking third after London and Paris. Four of the country’s five largest startup investments went to Berlin, according to EY Consultancy’s Start-up Barometer, which tracks industry trends.
Enter the Tegel Project
The financial and human flow to the metropolis triggered a housing crisis, with the German Confederation of Trade Unions (DGB) registering a deficit of 310,000 homes. Consequently, rents doubled between 2009 and 2019, according to the real estate film Immo-Welt.
The Tegel Project aims to develop the former airport into a vibrant hub of diversity, encompassing business, industry and science. At the same time, it will provide housing for students and staff in this newly created urban area. So far, investors have entrusted him with 8 billion euros.
Its managing director, Phillipp Bouteiller, is responsible for putting the respectable sum to good use: “I have always had a fascination with the Tempelhof [outro aeroporto desativado, no centro-sul de Berlim] and Tegel,” he said in a telephone interview to DW. Whoever intends to face a project like Tegel “has to be innovative, know how networks work and have a lot of resistance”.
Bouteiller’s resistance has already been put to the test: the project was frozen for more than eight years, victim of the BER fiasco: the Berlin mega-airport was scheduled to open in June 2012, but only became operational in October 2020, after more than 120,000 design, construction and installation defects are repaired.
Billion-dollar gaffes like Berlin-Brandenburg and Stuttgart 21 (a railroad and urban project whose costs have also exploded and should only be completed at least six years late) have called into question the proverbial German efficiency.
Tegel is certainly an ambitious undertaking, comprising 5,000 new homes for 10,000 citizens, space for 1,000 large and small establishments, a university campus, in addition to several other ramifications.
The first residential buildings are expected to be ready in 2026, but the total duration of the initiative is 20 years. However, after less than a month of construction, Bouteiller and his team have already bumped into the first hurdle: the capital’s water protection laws.
The businessman’s optimistic voice trembles a little, when asked about the matter: “We have been dealing with this water issue since the beginning.” According to project spokeswoman Constanze Döll, the costs of adhering to the recently updated legislation are in the tens of millions of euros. And she says she’s sure that other unpredictable problems could arise in the future.
Space for experimentation
While its resistance is being tested, Bouteiller gives wings to innovation: Tegel, he says, is a learning process that gives space to experimentation, such as discovering what can be relocated or recycled, what new materials can be used, and how to work with nature, not against it.
The London School of Economics PhD in International Management and Social Psychology wants everyone to see the bigger picture, and is looking “on a global level for ideas that can be effectively implemented at Tegel”.
Using and experimenting with materials like wood is part of the project’s larger theme: showing that an urban development of this scale can present a business model that is both functional and sustainable. It will try to prove that it is possible to carry out a scalable production process, involving an integrated value chain for wood cultivation, processing, construction and maintenance.
The Urban Tech Republic – as Project Tegel’s research and development arm is called – will reuse much of the airport’s original structure and include a new campus for Berlin’s Beuth University of Applied Sciences.
The emphasis is on zero-liquid energy systems and efficient energy consumption.” We want to demonstrate how an urbanization project like this can work with nature. If we don’t get that, we don’t stand a chance,” announces Bouteiller.
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