With club life coming to a grinding halt in 2020, radio has regained some of its importance. This might be one reason why over the last year the small internet radio station THF radio grew from a one-off affair into a regular program that is now streaming from Wednesday to Sunday. With an impressive variety of themes and hosts, THF Radio has established itself as a beacon of diversity for the city’s creative scene. 

A crucial moment was the festival “Better For Your Life: WOMXN WEEK” in summer 2020, curated by musician Derya Yıldırım and queer activist and writer Duygu Ağal. As a regular public festival was out of the question, it took the shape of a week long broadcast marathon and, with an wide range of predominantly female hosts and guests, an object lesson for representation. A few weeks later Derya would resume: “During lockdown we ended up thinking too much about current facts like experiences of injustice, missing safe spaces, and opportunities for people who have just started being creative in the scene of art and music. Also the excitement of being in interaction with other artists brought us to the idea to realize a surrounding which we thought would help at least for a week to develop hope, empower each other and embrace realities all together in one safe space.” Her cousin Duygu reminds us that “even though we had zero financial support for the artists, technical items or artist care et c., we wanted to reach out to artists who feel like expressing themselves because every other channel was cancelled. One of the main motivations for the week-long stream festival was the lack of representation of a more diverse display of the society within our own collective, to be really honest. We decided to ask mainly FLINT* and BIPoC artists from various diasporas in order to create a week-long safe(r)-space in which the artists* can connect, exchange, share, and narrate their arts through their very own way.” 

Accordingly, shows would contain interviews, monologues, poetry or round table discussions, but also strictly music. Friends and followers could hang outside the building in the warm weather, so there was always someone interesting to talk to: DJ Coco Maria, long time part of the Berlin vinyl scene, now residing in the Netherlands, came all the way to play, as was singer and musician Sasha Perrera, and DJ Amuleto Manuela who brought snacks and wine. There was filmmaker Ayşe Alacakaptan who is shooting a documentary on Derya, or Femi Oyewole, a hyperactive allround artist from UK who just dropped by to take help with the studio technicalities … for free, as everyone in the Torhaus collective that made all this possible with a seemingly easygoing DIY-vibe. Listening to members Sarah, Mona, Louis, Manuela, Ayoscha, Derya and Duygu in various conversations and email-exchanges, it sounds like the radio had almost happened by itself (as a feature of last year’s summer festival), and then turned into the main attractor for the Torhaus’ initial mission: Which was not at all about music and talk radio, but rather about architecture, city planning, sustainability, memory culture, integration and participation. All this inspired by and directed towards the building that hovers over the whole scenery. To talk about THF radio we must talk about the Tempelhof Airport.

Most major cities pride themselves with one international airport, Berlin is blessed – or cursed – with rather too many of them. After years of mismanagement BER has now opened ten years behind schedule, just in time for its own redundancy. Meanwhile, Tegel airport, widely regarded as an architectural masterpiece, has become too small for Berlin’s new self esteem and closed its gates in September. But the biggest question mark remains in Tempelhof. Since the last flight in 2008 the giant inner city airport building has hosted almost everything but air traffic: From rehearsal rooms in the wings’ basements to guided tours through the cavernous underbelly, from seasonal events to one-offs such as the Bread & Butter fashion fair, the Berlin Festival, film shootings (“Equilibrium”), bike or car racing. When the airfield opened for public, citizens quickly embraced the new green zone and claimed it with roller blades, barbeques and kites. It is also the epicentre of the current comeback of roller skates. A plan for new buildings on the field was rebuked by public vote. Between 2016 and 2019 the massive airport building was used as an emergency shelter for refugees. In spite of ample space it became rather notorious for its intimidating atmosphere and its inadequacy for hosting large amounts of humans and their basic needs, like hygiene, privacy, or culture. This lack of hospitality is partly grounded in its architecture: Designed by Ernst Sagebiel, it is a monumental case model of fascist aesthetics, a foreboding of the city’s hypothetical future concept of Germania: designed to degrade any human to ant size, and to emphasize the superiority of those who control it. Between 1934 and 1936 it also hosted an concentration camp. How should today’s Berlin deal with this heritage, how to use a building that has “Nazi-Deutschland” written all over its endless façade, how to flip its original purpose into the exact opposite? These are only some questions that come to mind when pondering the possible future of this building. And Torhaus turned out to be the place to discuss them

Viewed from the present, with a beer in hand and soft music in the background, Tempelhof airport also has a striking beauty: Behind the trees, orange sunlight sets the building’s walls on fire as the sky turns dark blue. A little lawn and some oversized furniture all look inviting but are, according to the sometimes kafkaesque rulings of the landlords, out of bounds. While it is still strictly regulated where not to sit and where to not lock a bike, the new tenants have come to an arrangement with the Airport GmbH which could result in a ten-year-lease. The Torhaus collective took over the building in 2018, still with no water or heating. They are the first tenants in decades. “Initially, it was the gatekeeper’s house,” explains founding member Ayosha, giving the tour. “It was built by the Americans. Here they would check your passport. It was then the entry to the airport building, where people got in that worked here, including the pilots.” “Which is a nice metaphor, too,’ says Louis, who has joined the collective last fall, “as it is also our entrance into the building.” But he emphasizes that “it is not our aim that we as Torhaus get into the airport, but rather to create a vision, to make it possible to think about what could happen at this huge empty building. See how Tempelhofer Feld is being used, and people are loving it. Our main aim is […] to make people realize what could happen there, if people had a space to do what they wanted to do.” 

Thankfully, nobody ever utters the word ‘think tank’, but negative connotations aside, Torhaus is just that: A hive mind project to tackle the vast and complex questions that the future of this building poses. Judging from the little library of the house, it deals with architecture, monuments and memory places – an issue that came up again in the course of the #BLM protests and the successful renaming of today’s Anton-Wilhelm-Amo-Straße in Berlin – as well as strategies for the decolonialization of public space. Founding member Mona Saddei goes into details: “Tempelhof Airport is often described as a reflection of recent German history. On their website the state-owned GmbH writes: ‘The resulting opening-up and revitalisation will bring the airport back into the social focus of the city and open up a new chapter in its impressive history’. What does ‘impressive history’ mean? Many people do not even know that a concentration camp was located on the site, directly where Hangar 1 stands today, and that thousands of forced labourers worked in the hangars and slept under inhuman conditions in barracks on Tempelhofer Feld. From 2015 to 2019, several thousand refugees lived in these hangars. The conditions were heavily criticized.” Indeed, the documentary ‘THF Central Airport’ by filmmaker Karim Aïnouz gives a good impression of the refugees first contact with Berlin. Almost needless to say that that their designated area was fenced off towards the public space in its backyard. Mona goes on: “Meanwhile, a participation process from Nov 2017 till March 2019 was stopped early because the aim of this project wasn’t clear. [The fact] that the working committee only consisted of white middle-class people wasn’t even discussed.” 

With this in mind, Torhaus wants to use its current position to open the process to the people that usually turn out as the victims of gentrification, not as participants: Low income households, a huge and settled immigrant community, and the independent art scene. This time the students and artists involved stand up against their usual role as harbingers of displacement: Instead they want to turn the whole process around by putting the foot in the door, establish contact between different groups and opening it for the people who have their own ideas about the opportunities this empty building holds. So it is with some confidence that Mona states: “With our cute little Torhaus we established ourselves as actors in one of Berlins most relevant development projects for the next decades – over 200.000 sqm are still vacant in the airport building which still is the biggest monument of Europe. This is the biggest free space in the center of Berlin and I think it should be seen as a chance to overcome structures and systems, that are more than outworn since they are destructive, separating and discriminative.” And she closes: “We are optimistic to find a common ground with the administration and management to make Torhaus and the Radio a place, where needed solutions can be found and be developed in a cooperative and creative manner.”

As if the historic weight of the the building wasn’t enough, it is the sheer size of it that makes it so hard to solve the mystery what the hell to do with it without becoming another architectural atrocity quite typical for today’s Berlin (think of BER, Spreeufer, or Humboldt-Forum). As Ayosha, a rare case of a driving force without the need to lead, states during our conversation: This question is too huge for one single mind. Of course, it has been tried: At some point some consultants’ office received some money to come up with a concept for a building that in theory could host the city’s complete administration plus all its cultural institutions at once. Following the logic of high profile city planning, Tempelhof would have to survive by one mega event chasing the next. In the face of the recent pandemic, visions like these seem hopelessly out of time. Ayosha nods: “That’s why we suggest to break it down. To plan for a building of 300.00 square meters from top down, it’s a crazy task.” He elaborates: “The most appealing concept would be in my eyes, to plan it in small parts and open the building for small groups, initiatives and culture. Then I think they will influence each other and it will grow by itself. Also maybe the planning shouldn’t be central but rather decentral, to open up opportunities.” As a start, Torhaus recently placed an open call for participation to develop a plan for Hangar X, that might become a test run for their decentred approach. Mona explains: “With the Hangar X Open Call and the planning workshops, we have made a first (albeit speculative) attempt, without any funding, to find out what happens if we start the discussion about this place ourselves. In the end, we as organizers learned a lot from the ‘outreach’ and are hopeful that despite Corona a community will be found to join us in this process to make it more inclusive, diverse, and transformative.”

Additionally, Torhaus took part in the exhibition “Living the City” in the airport’s main hall in October which dealt with issues such as city planning, community participation and new visions for old buildings. Issues that some of the Torhaus members are quite familiar with from their respective academic backgrounds. They know the procedures quite well, and they also know about the loopholes, which gives hope for the ongoing dialogue with the Airport GmbH. The relationship is said to be not without difficulties, but it is real.  Asked about the current stance of the Airport GmbH regarding renting out space in general Ayosha says: “Presently they say they don’t want to rent out. They still have some older contracts, but right now the plan is now to renovate. It’s an old building that hasn’t been touched in while. It’s heritage, as is our place. But even if you renovate, you will have to think about what will happen with the building. It will not stay empty forever. It has to connect with the field, and it has to meet the needs of the people living in the city, and what they want. There has to be some kind of discussion and openness about this master plan.” 

In that respect, the radio has also become a model case: Start small with fancy but yet realistic ideas, join forces with likeminded people, and then project these experiences into future models. Also it was a way to survive Corona. While club life dried out, the broadcasting could continue, with distance and masks, but still no less diversity. Torhaus became a place to socialise with the creative scene of neighbouring Neukölln and beyond. Whoever I asked about how they ended up in the THF program, the story is more or less the same: Invited by a friends, charmed by the place, the DIY structures and the patience to let things develop in their own way, paired with an almost mysterious air of competence and purpose when it comes to things that matter. “It has a good magnetic effect for nice people,” says Amuleto Manuela who joined the radio station in early 2020. “It is not above all or a fancy circle. Everyone can just write, and if there is a slot, they will have a space for being part of the radio.” The British musician and producer Femi Oyewole tells a similar story: He had just arrived in Berlin via NYC and is now hosting no less than four shows under the name Femdalefem the Gardener, taking turns each Friday: While in his solo show GrooveStories the music speaks for itself, he digs deeper in his interview slot, the Femdelafem Show: “Here I invite different persons, and the way I interview them is through music: Asking them what they were listening to when they were at school, that sort of stuff. The third show is with my DJ collective, the FTL collective.  That’s the time when we play games, challenge each other musically. And the fourth show Black Brown Berlin is connected to my website. I invite black and brown people to take the spotlight. I’m there, but more to just help out technically” As many others he went from radio host to regular member of the community. Asked for his view on the future of Tempelhof and the HangarX project, he states: “Especially as a black and brown person myself it is really cool to be able to hopefully extend the conversation to people in different communities that I know, who either haven’t even heard of this opportunity and who are often not part of the conversation when an opportunity like this arrives.’  

The initial two days of THF radio program have now grown into five, Wednesday to Friday, with a volunteering tech time that keeps things working, and a curating team to ensure that program’s exceptional diversity. “We often talk about in the meetings,” says Manuela, “how important it is to not only have guys playing.”  She herself tries to feature guests who are, like her, female and immigrant. “We as women also have to learn not to be a minority,” she states, and in fact it is only in the last few years that festivals, radio and funding actively try to make up for the decades of male dominated monoculture. At the same time with its openness to immigrants and expats, Torhaus might overcome the traditional mistrust between leftist hedonism  and Berlin’s immigrant communities. 

Some credit must be given to Derya Yıldırım and Duygu Ağal who knew the Torhaus crew back from the (Hamburg) school days. Derya’s debut at THF was a now legendary solo concert with her singing and playing the bağlama. This, and the fact that in the time of the first lockdown, Derya and Duygu had discovered the Torhaus as a co-working space, have developed into Derya’s monthly show “baglama_special.mp3” and also resulted in the curational highlight of 2020, the BFYL: WomenX week. Derya remembers: “I think this project was definitely part of an important movement for the surrounding of the Torhaus. I know that in this place, there is the awarness of visibility of diversities etc. But with a project in this extent, where all artists coming together for one reason of solidarity and empowerment, it created another story of opening such as big topics like this one in the spaces of the Torhaus. It was amazing to see and feel the social relevance of a project like that.” Duygu, who got the project on the way with Derya and Ayosha, states: “The realization of this project had people connecting, contributing, encountering, learning, discussing and sharing and thus, brought numerous political and social matters to awareness and made visible. I can feel that the realization of the „BFYL: Womxn Week“ has changed the collective’s approach on the whole THF-Radio sector regarding the balance of content of our shows as well as representation of artists and I am very happy and proud of that.”

With the second lockdown, the radio makers, too, had to switch to home recorded shows. While this gives time for renovation in the small building, the radio keeps multiplying: Berlin’s first integrated DJ crew Supstar Sound System just broadcasted  a special, and Torhaus was guest curating a seven hour show on “Ecosystems Of Creativity via Collective Practices” at ACUD.Among the regular hosts today are queer DJ legend Ipek, Berlin’s Brazilian stalwart DJ Grace Kelly, DJs Chloé Detchard and Sooma, the Tropical Timewarp collective with its selection of African and Afro-Latin vinyls, Duygu with her monthly show “w/Daygen”, dedicated, but not limited to, political issues, and Ken Okuda, who apparently recruited many of today’s resident DJs, among them Femi and Amuleto Manuela. Manuela’s show “Gardenia Routes”, a joyful mix of music and talk with fellow expats and immigrants in Berlin, has started in January 2020. Aside from vinyl DJing she has just enrolled at Kunsthochschule Weißensee, studying with, among others, Bonaventure Ndikung who has over the last ten years built up the Gallery Savvy Contemporary, a similarly self crafted place with a fresh take on representation and power imbalancement. And she adds another factor, not really mentioned before: “It is not about money. With many projects, at some point somebody says: I invested time, I have to earn some money. We are actually rather spending our own money, so the whole mentality is different from the capitalist system.” 

This and the fact that their non-hierarchical awareness and DIY approach never seemed forced but rather grown organically, makes the Torhaus collective an exception in the thinning cultural landscape of the city. This is one place where the potential rift between class and identity politics has not paralyzed the political agenda – an agenda which seems humble and bold at the same time: Taking part in the discussion about the city’s biggest architectural question mark. No more no less.

By Eric Mandel