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Dr. Paul Smith

Historic Airports Revisited

Von 29. Januar 2024Mai 28th, 2024Keine Kommentare
©Maurice Weiss


At the turn of the present century, partners from three European countries – the Landesdenkmalamt-Berlin in Germany, the heritage directorate at the Ministry of Culture in France, and English Heritage in the United Kingdom – participated in a cultural project entitled “L’Europe de l’Air” devoted to the comparison of three historic European airports and their recognition as heritage. Looking at the three sites chosen, Liverpool-Speke, Berlin-Tempelhof, and Paris-Le Bourget, the project understood that airports are to be appreciated not as collections of buildings, sometimes remarkable ones, but as very special global landscapes, with the flying field as the crucial feature to be preserved. The paper here takes a look at the ways the three sites have evolved since the conclusion of the project in 2001.

„Twenty years ago today…”

From 1999 to 2001, institutional partners from three different countries, the Landesdenkmalamt-Berlin in Germany, the heritage directorate at the Ministry of Culture in France, and English Heritage in the United Kingdom (still a member of the European Union at this date) participated in a project called “L’Europe de l’Air”, Europe of the Air. Through collaboration, the exchange of ideas and practice, and the pooling of experience, the project, supported by one of the European Union’s cultural programs called Raphaël, aimed at encouraging the conservation and promotion of an important but little appreciated feature of Europe’s shared cultural heritage, airport sites and airport buildings dating from between the two world wars of the twentieth century.

This period, the first decade of which is known variously as the roaring twenties, the golden twenties, the jazz age, or, in French, “les années folles”, was the period that saw the courageous pioneering flights, the North and South transatlantic crossings, for example, or the first aerial circumnavigation of the globe. It was the period of legendary pilots like Charles Lindbergh, Amelia Earhart, Amy Johnson, or Jean Mermoz who joined the ranks of the twentieth-century’s first media celebrities, alongside the stars of Hollywood. And it was the period when commercial flying took off and grew into an economic reality throughout Europe and North America, although still the privilege of an elite of wealthy – and intrepid – travelers. And as this exciting new form of travel developed, the airfields that gradually became connected on European-wide and then transatlantic networks, saw new buildings spring up at their edges: hangars and workshops for sheltering and servicing the aircraft, control towers for directing their movements on the ground and in the air, premises for meteorological and radio offices, freight facilities for small quantities of valuable merchandise, and what became known as terminals – “aérogares” in French – for the accommodation of passengers, their luggage, and its inspection by customs services. Hotels were sometimes associated with these terminal buildings.

Hesitating at first between existing historic models such as the railway station or the hippodrome, these terminals gradually became a prestigious and quintessentially modern building type, architectural showcases for the places they served, demonstrations of municipal or national pride. They were the first and last impression wealthy and influential visitors had of a country or a city. The vast majority of people who frequented these airports, however, were not in fact air travelers, but the crowds for whom the terminal with its viewing terraces was a place they came to for a day out, for the views of aircraft landing and taking off, for a glimpse, perhaps, of a celebrity arriving or departing. It was a place of spectacle not that far removed from another architectural novelty of the day, the cinema.

Today, not many airport buildings dating from this first interwar generation are still in existence. During the Second World War, any site used by aircraft or associated with aircraft manufacture was likely to be a prime target for air raids. Those that survived into our easyjet age of mass air travel were subsequently modernized, extended, and rebuilt, or else abandoned, their empty fields offering valuable and well-situated land for new buildings.

Nonetheless, amongst the rare surviving sites, the project was able to draw attention to some exceptional places. Some of these belong to the history of lighter-than-air flight, balloons, and dirigible airships:

  • The 1879 Hangar Y at Meudon, near Paris, recently restored as a prestigious private venue for contemporary art.
  • The 1918 airship hangar at Écausseville in Normandy, still standing but without any use.
  • At Cardington, Bedfordshire, in England, the two early twentieth-century hangars, restored in 2015, one of them still used for airship construction, the other as film studios.

Others are sites the project looked at are related to aeronautical research:

  • The 1930s wind tunnel at Meudon.
  • The wind tunnels at Johannisthal, south of Berlin (Adlershof Aerodynamic Park), with its enigmatic 1936 Trudelturm.

Among the surviving airport sites, the project looked at:

  • Port Aviation, near Paris, probably the world’s oldest surviving aviation-related building, a club house built at a 1909 aerodrome created as a place for permanent airshows.
  • The airport buildings at Antwerp-Deurne, the 1931 terminal designed by Stanislas Jasinski, still in use today after restoration.
  • Barton aerodrome of the early 1930s, Manchester’s first airport with its grass runways still in use for recreational flying.
  • The so-called ‘Beehive’ terminal at Gatwick airport, dating from 1935, now used as office accommodation.
  • Shoreham, Brighton City airport, still a popular place for airshows and recreational flying and in use for business and executive aviation.
  • The terminal designed by Vilhelm Lauritzen at Copenhagen airport, preserved in 1999 by physically uprooting it and moving it to the other side of the airfield.
  • Helsinki-Malmi airport, another circular construction, like Gatwick or Roissy Charles-de-Gaulle 1, dating from 1938, but under threat today on its airfield which was decommissioned in 2021.
  • The 1937 terminal at Jersey airport, designed by the specialist architect Graham Dawbarn, recently under threat but now saved.
  • The former airport of Toulouse-Montaudran, home of the celebrated Aéropostale firm, no longer in use but with some preserved buildings and a listed runway.
  • Orly airport south of Paris, a site used since the First World War with a prestigious new terminal opened in 1961 as the main airport for Paris.

Dr. Wolfgang Voigt, then director of the German Architecture Museum at Frankfurt and one of the key contributors to the Europe de l’Air project, drew special attention to the Giovanni Nicelli airport on the Venice Lido. Here is a rare and delightful surviving example of what an important 1930s airport looked like, with its modest and well-designed 1935 terminal, its viewing platforms, and its grass runway, still in use. In Italy, during the 1930s, this airport was second in importance only to Rome. The terminal building has been carefully restored, work that was completed in 2007.

The European funding for the project, about half of a total budget of 500,000 euros, required, as rules of the game so to speak, the identification of specific sites of cultural heritage in three separate countries. Le Bourget airport, north of Paris, one of the birthplaces of international commercial aviation as early as 1919, and proud today of its 1937 terminal building, now part of the national air and space museum, was an obvious first choice for the French Ministry of Culture, the initiators and leaders of the project. Not many international phone calls were then required (e-mails were in their infancy) in order to identify two other more or less comparable 1930s airport sites in the United Kingdom, at Liverpool-Speke, and in Germany, at Berlin-Tempelhof. Earlier contacts made through TICCIH, the International Committee for the Conservation of the Industrial Heritage, were particularly useful.

The project focused, then, on what seemed to be an interesting selection of three places, two national airports, in France and in Germany, and one municipal one, at Liverpool. At the beginning of the project, at the end of the 1990s, the two national airports were both still in use. Since 1953, Le Bourget has been the home every two years to a major airshow and arms fair, and, outside that period, the airport has become one of the busiest in Europe for business aviation. Tempelhof, in 1999, was still in use for various short haul flights, although the decision to concentrate all Berlin’s air traffic at a new airport to be built on the former East German field of Schönefeld, had already been taken, in 1996. Liverpool-Speke was the only airport no longer in use, a new airport and terminal having been opened a few kilometres upstream, on the river Mersey, in 1986.

The disused Speke airfield was still an empty expanse of grass criss-crossed by its runways, going down to the river Mersey. The 1930s terminal building and two adjoining hangars were all in an advanced state of dereliction. In 2001, the new airport at Liverpool was named John Lennon airport, the only airport in the United Kingdom to have the name of a person. In 1958, apparently, John Lennon had a summer job for a few weeks, washing dishes at Speke airport’s restaurant!

During the three years’ duration of the European

project, we mounted exhibitions and organized international conferences at the three sites and two books were brought to publication, the first a trilingual presentation and comparison of the three sites, and the second, entitled “Historic Airports”, a selection, in English, of the papers read at the three conferences. So, it is not necessary here to go back over the history of the three sites. But it is interesting, I think, in view of the initial ambitions of the project, to take a look at the three sites (and the two non-German ones more particularly) to see how they have evolved during the years since the end of the project, twenty-years ago.

Liverpool Speke

Commercial flying from Liverpool, from a riverside airfield about ten kilometres south of the city, began in 1930. The local authorities, conscious of the importance of rail and maritime transportation networks in their city’s tremendous nineteenth-century prosperity, were anxious not to miss out on the latest revolution in transport. A municipal committee traveled to Europe to visit existing airports and, interestingly enough, thirty years before the Beatles established another cultural connection between the two port cities, this committee chose the airport of Hamburg-Fuhlsbüttel, opened in 1929 to the designs of Friedrich Dyrssen and Peter Averhoff, as the model for the new terminal to be built at Speke, constructed from 1935. At different scales, the two airports present similar designs with curving terminal buildings at the perimeter of the flying field, housing all the airport’s functions, with broad viewing terraces and restaurants for the non-flying public. Two symmetrical hangars flank the terminal building. At Speke, in another characteristically European touch, the second of the two flanking hangars to be built (in 1939) was constructed using ‘Lamella’ arched steel trusses, a system (Lamellendach) patented by the Junkers firm of Dessau.

In 1999, this hangar, like the terminal building itself, was derelict. Only the first hangar, with its intriguing Art Deco façade, had found a new use since the closure of the airport, and was in the process of being transformed into a commercial sports and fitness center: the 20-metre height of the structure made the insertion of several tennis courts a possibility. The second, Lamella, hangar was subsequently restored and transformed into a headquarters for ‘Shop Direct’ retailers.

At an early stage in the exchanges made possible by the Europe de l’Air project, there emerged a keen awareness that if historic airport sites were to be appreciated, maintained, and shared for their heritage values, they had to be understood not as collections, however remarkable, of hangars, control towers, and terminal buildings, but as global landscapes where the level expanse of the flying field itself, with or without hard-surfaced runways, was the key functional component, the crucial feature to be preserved intact.

Two counterexamples illustrate only too vividly the loss of coherence and meaning when an aviation building’s associated airfield disappears. At Port Aviation, near Paris, the site developed in 1909 for airshows and flight demonstrations, a single timber-framed building survives, originally a clubhouse and hotel with a viewing platform on its roof. It now looks out over an unremarkable housing estate developed in the1920s.

In England, Croydon, London’s main airport during the interwar years, offers another precedent not to be followed. The airport opened in 1920 with a terminal built to designs by the Air Ministry from 1926 to 1928. This was one of the first airport terminals in the world (shortly before the first terminal building at Tempelhof) to incorporate all the place’s functions under a single roof. It is characterized by its integrated control tower that rises from the center of the building like a watchtower on the wall of an empire. Croydon was closed in 1959, replaced by Heathrow, but the building, with the neighboring hotel (the world’s first airport hotel) were saved and listed as historic monuments in 1978. The control tower now houses a visitor center where children can dress up as passengers of the 1930s and admire Amy Johnson’s flight bag.

Despite this commendable initiative, however, the terminal building now looks out over a nondescript industrial estate where the flying field used to be. The terminal is robbed of its context, its setting, and its functional significance. Visitors are perhaps reminded of the place’s earlier airport history by a 1950s Heron aircraft mounted in the building’s forecourt, but it is of course on the wrong side of the building to be taking off.

During the Europe de l’Air project, there was much discussion with the developers of the site at Liverpool, the Speke-Garston Development Company, as to how the place could and should evolve. The future of one of the hangars, as we have seen, had already been decided on, as a sports center and the schemes for restoring the terminal, extending it on its landside and transforming the whole building into a 160-bedroom hotel were well advanced. There was a clearly identified need for an up-market hotel at Speke, close to a major European car factory (Jaguar Land Rover, at Halewood) and close too to a former match factory being converted into business accommodation. To begin with, the luxury hotel, which opened in the summer of 2001, belonged to the Marriot chain but today it is the four-star Crowne Plaza Liverpool John Lennon hotel, catering to business travelers and the business and conventions market.

The development company’s priority, however, was the creation of jobs in a former industrial neighborhood with a high level of unemployment This priority led to the sacrifice of the whole of the disused flying field and the creation of a vast business park characterized by the single-story metal boxes of contemporary warehousing and industrial units. The suggestion that the layout of the site could perhaps perpetuate the original pattern of the runways was not deemed feasible. On the airside of the hotel, there is just a small open space of the former apron, with a scattering of old aircraft belonging to a local heritage group.

Paris-Le Bourget

Of the three cases brought together in the Europe de l’Air project, Liverpool then seems to be the least happy in its outcome. Although the historic airport buildings are still there, listed as heritage and still in use, they are now deprived of the very special landscape they once belonged to, deprived of a part of their past that could give them meaning in the present. Tempelhof, despite early projects to develop new building at the periphery of the airfield (projects recorded in the “Historic Airports” publication), has so far managed to avoid this outcome. The Tempelhof field is now a precious surface of fresh air and recreation in the city, and it even keeps its two hard-surfaced runways, available, should the decision ever be taken to go back to some form of aeronautical use. Although the airfield and the terminal building are separated by a fence, the global airport landscape is successfully preserved.

At Paris-Le Bourget, the airfield that dates back to the beginning of the First World War and which was extended during the Second (when the first concrete runway was created by the German occupying forces) is still the heart of what has become the busiest airport in Europe for private, business aviation. Altogether, and including the Airbus Helicopters plant opened in 2017, the platform employs close to 3,000 people and is home to some 45 companies associated with private flying. It counts up to 55,000 flight movements per year (compared to 218,000 at Orly or 409,000 at Roissy-Charles-de-Gaulle). Some of these movements are the much-criticized and environmentally unfriendly private jets of stars, but other passengers passing discretely through Le Bourget include diplomats and businessmen as well as medical services for ‘vols sanitaires’.

Le Bourget is a striking illustration of one of the defining characteristics of airports that Reyner Banham identified in an often-quoted article of 1962: they are places of perpetual obsolescence, always striving, on the ground, to catch up with technical progress in the air and with ever-swelling numbers of passengers. The first ‘air port’ at Le Bourget, five large reinforced concrete hangars and a collection of individual pavilions arranged around a car park and gardens, was designed in 1920 for an estimated thirty passengers per day. Although considered oversized and over-expensive when it was opened, in 1925, it soon proved inadequate, with passenger numbers passing from 6,200 in 1920 to 104,000 in 1935. The new terminal, designed by the architect Georges Labro, opened for the International Exhibition of 1937. Badly damaged by allied bombing at the end of the war, it was hastily repaired and allowed Le Bourget to continue to serve as the main Paris airport until Orly, in the 1960s, and then Roissy Charles-de-Gaulle, in the 1970s, replaced it.

Commercial aviation ceased altogether at Le Bourget in 1981 and although, for a short while, there was still a military presence on the western (Dugny) side of the airfield, the sector to the south of the platform, including the 1937 terminal building and a series of 1940s hangars, was given over to France’s national air and space museum, founded in 1919. The interior of Labro’s terminal building was adapted to house the ‘Grande Galérie’, a collection of objects and aircraft telling the story of the conquest of the air by both lighter-than-air and heavier-than-air flying machines, up to the end of the First World War. Characteristic of the rather heavy-handed museography of the 1980s, the display paid little attention to the spatial and decorative qualities of the interior of the 1937 terminal, qualified as Art Deco by some. On the landside façade, three statues that decorated the center of the building, looking like figures left over from the Paris Colonial Exhibition of 1931, threatened collapse and were held up with netting. Since 1994, this terminal building has enjoyed statutory protection as a historic monument, but this protection does not encompass the five reinforced concrete hangars designed by the Swiss engineer Henri Lossier in 1922, extended in 1930 and still in use today.

This then was the situation when the museum became one of the leading partners in the Europe de l’Air project. What follows brings the story up to date, both with regards to the museum and to the airport as a whole, managed today by the airport authority of the Paris region, the Aéroports de Paris group (ADP), founded in 1945. It is perhaps worth mentioning first the progress that has been made in France in the understanding and cultural analysis of aeronautical and aviation history in general(1) and, more specifically on airport ensembles:

  • Christian Tilatti (dir), Le trésors du musée de l’Air et de l’Espace, Paris, Le Cherche-Midi, 2013
  • Hélène Caroux, Antoine Furio, Benoît Pouvreau, L’Aéroport du Bourget, entre les lignes, histoire d’un territoire en Seine-Saint-Denis, Seine-Saint-Denis, Service du Patrimoine cuturel, 2015
  • Julien Scavini, Aéroport Charles-de-Gaulle, Paris, ETAI, 2018
  • Jean-Emmanuel Terrier, L’Aéroport de Paris-Le Bourget, 1910-2019, un siècle d’histoire, Paris, Amarena, 2019
  • Paul Damm, Orly, Aéroport des Sixties, Lyon, Lieux-Dits, 2020
  • Paul Smith, « Aérogare du Bourget », Jacques Moulin (dir), Architectures en Seine-Saint-Denis, Paris, Bibliothèque de la Société française d’Archéologie, 2020, p. 261-275

(1) Nathalie Roseau, Aérocity, Quand l’avion fait la ville, Paris, Parenthèses, 2012 ; Nathalie Roseau, Marie Thébaud-Sorger, L’emprise du vol, Paris MérisPresses, 2013 ; Christoph Asendorf, Super Constellation L’influence de l’aéronautique sur les arts et la culture (traduit de l’allemand), Paris, Macula, 2013.

At the beginning of the project, in 1999, the leading protagonist at Le Bourget, the curator Bernard Rignault, was already working on how to redesign part of the museum in order better to reveal the qualities, the decoration, and the spirit of the 1930s terminal. The programme he established, carried out in stages between 2000 and 2019, has involved, first of all, the restoration of the central hall of the terminal, the so-called “salle des huit colonnes” (the eight-column hall) and the reinstatement of this central part of the building as the main entrance to the museum, leading through, on either side of a monumental staircase, towards the original departure and arrival gates of the historic terminal. On either side of this central hall, the display in the Grande Galérie has been entirely reordered, with aircraft now supported on stands rather than being suspended from the ceiling, a system that rendered both the building and the objects fragile. This newly designed Grande Galerie was inaugurated in 2019 by the Minister of the Armed Forces (the Ministry with responsibility for the museum). More recently, in February 2023, a new documentation center has been opened inside the terminal building, with a space for youngsters and school parties and a library giving access to the museum’s rich collections: 46,000 books, 22,000 documentary files, 500,000 photos, 50,000 plans and technical drawings… The control tower has been restored to its state as rebuilt in 1953 and is now open to the public with its views over the flying field.

Outside the terminal building, to the south, two of the hangars which were in a poor state of repair and full of asbestos, have been demolished to make way for a new complex (Astreos) which will be built from 2025 and which will comprise sequences devoted to the history of civil aviation since the Second World War, to light aviation and to the future of flying, along with a new planetarium and spaces for temporary exhibitions. The dynamic spirit which characterizes the direction and development of the museum in recent years can also be seen on the other side of the airfield at Dugny, a 13-hectare zone for storage and restoration workshops, only exceptionally open to the public, for example on European Heritage days. Here five new hangars, four permanent structures and a temporary metallo-textile one, have been put up over the past two decades for the preventive conservation of the museum’s reserve collections. The latest hangar, to be opened shortly, is the ‘Réserve Grands Formats’ which comprises a double skin in order to assure its passive air-conditioning. Its design is due to the specialist architect Hugues Fontenas, and it offers 3,000 square metres, to shelter, for example, the museum’s Lockheed Constellation.

Like the museum, the airport at Le Bourget has also witnessed considerable development over the past twenty years. Its sustained growth as a business airport and maintenance centre for private aircraft has been mentioned: the latest terminal for private aviation, the luxurious VIP terminal for Astonsky, an aeronautical group founded by Charles Clair, with its fleet of 14 private jets, was opened in 2019. Equally striking is the ground level development of commercial activities oriented towards the needs (?) of the wealthy clients that now pass through the airport. Apart from a four-star (Marriott) hotel and a limousine service, only to be expected, the site has recently become home to Chantilly cars, selling prestige sports cars. A 25,000-m2 Chenue fine art storage and conservation warehousing facility opened in 2020. Next to it, a former workshop building of 1957 has been transformed by the star French architect Jean Nouvel to accommodate a gallery belonging to the well-known American art dealer Larry Gagosian.

Undoubtedly the most significant change coming to Le Bourget will be the opening, in 2026, of a new metro station, on line 17 of the Grand Paris Express, due to be extended to Roissy-Charles-de-Gaulle in 2030. This direct rail link, projected practically since the beginning of commercial flying at Le Bourget, will considerably reduce travel time between the airport and the capital and render the museum far less complicated to reach by public transport. The renewal of commercial aviation, for example between Le Bourget and London’s City airport or, why not? between Le Bourget and Berlin-Tempelhof, might even be considered…

To conclude, and to offer, in a postscript, a modest contribution to the workshop’s reflections about the mythical narratives surrounding flying and airports, mention must be made here of the temporary exhibition recently opened at Le Bourget under the title “Les années folles de l’aviation, l’aéronautique au cœur de la modernité (1919-1939)”, aviation in the jazz age, aeronautics at the heart of modernity. Here is a new, exciting and sumptuously illustrated look at the way flying transformed mentalities and society during the 1920s and 1930s, altering notions of distance and proximity, changing ways of seeing and representing, impinging on the arts and on architecture, showing how flying dreams morphed into threats and nightmares as the interwar years became the pre-war years…

Autor: Dr. Paul Smith

Datum: 8 November 2023