Squatting the Zeitgeist

For the sheer scale of its ambition, I'm awestruck and excited by this - an attempt to mount what must be the biggest squat of all time. From my friend Dan in Berlin: beginning this afternoon Berlin social movements will try to take the abandoned Tempelhof Airport, once one of the largest buildings in the world. And not just the terminal buildings: they seem to be trying to occupy its entire compound, including its twin 2km runways (partly built by American engineers to accommodate the US Air Force's C-54 Skymaster cargo aircraft during the Berlin Airlift).

I suspect they probably won't get enough people to succeed, but I really hope they do. Not so much for political reasons: I'm not sure there's particularly powerful justification for taking such a huge space (although I think more manageable squats of under-used land are often good things).

But more because I'm excited by the spectacle. Just imagine what the mad, massed sects of the Berlin underground - the punks, the skaters, the activists, the hippies, the anarchists, the Trots, the ravers, the Fuckparaders - can think up to do with a whole airport.

And partly because of the gorgeous historical justice of democratising a space that is in some respects the origin of the modern 'machine building': the massive architecture of project urbanism that characterises European and American post-war cities, and makes it difficult for real people to live there.

Originally intended for Zeppelins in the 1920s, Tempelhof's terminal buildings were apparently commissioned by Albert Speer - Hitler's architect of the spectacular - as the intended gateway to the Reich's Europe. Norman Foster, who's designed airport terminals at Stansted and Beijing, called Tempelhof "the mother of all modern airports". Tautologous, obviously. There aren't any pre-modern airports. Airports are the archetypal modern non-place: spaces, unique to modernity, that are designed purely for movement and circulation; that lack community, identity, history; that are designed actively to prevent people from actually living there. That's why, I guess, if you sit in Heathrow's Terminal 4 for any period of time you feel like your central nervous system is dying: we're literally not supposed to be there. It's a space designed to make us be somewhere else. Although it's not ostensibly its primary function, lots of other urban architecture works like this too: the narrowed streets (for driving through/(barely) walking on, not for sitting by) and fortress office blocks of most post-war European cities, in fact.

But of course there's something extra going on with airports. They're not just spaces designed to circulate, regulate and exclude humans, but spaces where this is to be done by states. Modern neoclassical airports are both grandiose, empty monuments to states; and intricate machines for states to impose their power by processing people seeking access to their space. Modernity begins with keeping people in and out of places (fields, woods, cities, countries): and although all modern states do this, no regimes have done it as nakedly and rejoicingly as the disciples to modernity who ran Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany. And the Nazis' monument to a modernity characterised by state power, human regulation, and ceaseless human circulation...is Tempelhof: the first modern airport, from which all its other hateful airportlet progeny have spawned.

I can't think of anything more joyous than to take it over for "low-cost living places, trailer parks, theatres, intercultural gardens, barbecues, cultural centres, skate parks, adventure playgrounds, museums, agricultural fields". If only we could mobilise the collective anomie, rage and despair of most air travellers, we could take Heathrow next.

Find out how they're doing here.