The new Berlin Brandenburg Airport (BER) designed by gmp architects is finally open. Inspired by Mies van der Rohe and preussian neo-classicism, the building conjures an idea of polished, pragmatic efficiency. For a moment of contemplation or prayer, the meditation space provides a quiet refuge in transit.
Gmp is one of the leading architectural firms for urban infrastructure with offices in Germany and Asia. They have successfully completed stadiums in China, several other airport terminals, and elaborate projects, such as the Berlin main railway station, where trains cross on two separate levels. When problems emerged at the Berlin Brandenburg terminal just before opening in 2011, the airport company took charge of the completion, which famously lasted almost a decade to finish. It’s an unusual story that award-winning architects with extensive experience lost control of completing such a major building project.
Tegel Airport (TXL) was their first big commission in the late 1960s, based on Meinhard von Gerkan’s (founding partner) idea developed as student. Von Gerkan, who has also written widely on their projects, believes in geometrical models that should guide spatial design. The TXL plan was based on a flexible concept that was initially envisioned as two identical hexagonal buildings next to each other. The new BER terminal design is also based on a geometrical model, which draws from a clearer rationalist principle. Its expansion has been imagined as continuity through rectangular forms.
Due to delays the new airport concept has been seen by some critics as outdated. Of course contantly evolving information technology and unpredictable global events change the requirements for terminal buildings. The current crisis in aviation will take 3-4 years to recover, Engelbert Lütke Daldrup, CEO of BER airport company, predicts. Hence the current size of the terminal seems perfect for the coming years. In comparison to TXL, the BER terminal is spacious with a clarity in the programme, in which the Miesien horizontal uniformity can be recognised as a guiding principle. But the unbelievably short distances, that were part of the TXL magic, are impossible today due to safety restrictions.
Besides Mies van der Rohe and Bauhaus there are formal references to the grand neo-classical buildings of Berlin and Potsdam, the architects explained. The long horizontal colonnades have been appropriated as slender columns, supporting the vast roof structure, that seems to be floating above the terminal. As a high-tech interpretation of the preussian architectural heritage, the terminal façade creates formal continuity with Berlin’s historic identity. The train connection between city centre and airport, accessed vertically below terminal 1 departure hall, has been designed to ease travel to and from airport. As the central station was also conceived by gmp, there is a formal logic binding these two major elements in the city’s infrastructure together.
Terminal architecture has become elaborate and complex, especially in Asia, where glasshouses containing gardens are incorporated into airports to soothe anxious travellers and offer environments for relaxation. At BER the terminal architecture feels pragmatic, a sophisticated and upgraded version of the generic airport environment. One of the highlights, a refuge for stressed-out travellers in need of isolation, is the Room of Silence. Unlike some airport chapels, it has been conceived as a unique part within the terminal complex, providing an abstract visual realm and a sense of stillness.
The chapel can be found on the second floor above the departure hall, behind Starbucks, and hence accessible prior to border and safety checks. In contrast to the wide-open spaces and glossy surfaces of the terminal, the chapel feels archaic and cave-like. Based on a geometric formal idea, the five interconnecting rooms have been created with a minimalist aesthetic to enhance the meditative character of the space. The aim is to serve people from all cultural and religious backgrounds as a space of reflection and prayer.
The particular haptic quality can be experienced immediately inside the entrance hall, which opens to two small courtyard rooms on both sides. Silence and tranquillity will be sensed by the body at the threshold. The walls are covered with handcrafted bricks – a materiality in total contrast to the sleek and shiny terminal spaces. Those bespoke Kolumba bricks form a layered texture to the walls, which also enhances acoustic qualities. Wall texture is emphasised by LED strips placed low at the edge of the floor, also covered with brick.
There are two prayer rooms, one with a cross and the other with a compass in bronze embedded to the floor to show the special direction for prayer. With stepped vaulted ceilings, these rooms include open horizontal joints, where light also falls from above, creating the impression of a floating ’light vault’ made of bricks. Following the geometric proportional system of the terminal, these rooms nevertheless feel separated from the mundane hassle of the world in transit surrounding them. A Zumthor-like transcendental quality reigns in these spaces.