"One Size Fits All" - Framing Collectivity in Extra-Large Urban Buildings

One Size Fits All”

Framing Collectivity in Extra-Large Urban Buildings

“[D]iscredited as an intellectual problem [Bigness} is apparently on its way to extinction - like the dinosaur — through clumsiness, slowness, inflexibility, difficulty. But in fact, only Bigness instigates the regime of complexity that mobilizes the full intelligence of architecture and its related fields.”

Rem Koolhaas - S, M, L, XL


Produced throughout in the 20th century, a range of extra-large buildings, often in highly visible urban locations, now pass through urban and architectural evolution processes.  Whether as an expression of state power, as symbolic and functional ‘machines’ for mass distribution/production, or as remnants of speculative development, many of these projects are simultaneously obsolete, historically protected, and/or urbanistically dominant. They are too large to fail, to expensive to upgrade, and too present in the consciousness and context they have shaped. As many previously shared urban resources increasingly migrate into private management, some of these buildings present a countertrend. Their scale enables them to become frameworks for new processes for sharing space as well as sharing power as their vast ‘urban interiors’ are wrestled from economic interests to become managed and held in common. Architects have increasingly had agency within the ensuing negotiations that engage questions of development, preservation, and community interests —leveraging design expertise to frame a collective process of territorial negotiation.

Drawing on an analysis of recent transformations in four extra-large buildings  —Torre David in Caracas, Tempelhof Airport, and Haus der Statistik in Berlin— this article investigates the second life of large buildings as they transition from being under the autonomous authority of either an economic or political power towards an alternative model of shared tenancy that is negotiated by a multiplicity of stakeholders. Each case study presents a unique scenario in which multiple users together with architects engage in a collaborative and negotiated process towards shared space and governance. Documenting the spatial framework, urban condition, and physical transformation of these buildings as a spatial backdrop, the article foregrounds the nature of the involvement of architects in the constellation and evolution of the complex process of engaging multiple stakeholders and interests into a new model of shared power and influence. 

Large buildings present open spatial frameworks of quasi-infinite programmatic multiplicity that requires collective processes towards equal or representative models of jointly managing spatial territories. In successful examples of these processes, grass-roots and/or community initiatives to re-form (and reform) dormant architectural space within cities are evolving with the sophistication of multi-constituent development methods, serving needing populations and forming new opportunities and settings for community. As the article traces the mechanisms pertinent to the formation and re-formation of these buildings, it highlights present and future pathways for architects to act as catalyzing agents positioned between institutions of power and multiple constituencies in need.


1_Torre David – architects as observers and assistants of self-governance 


  • Amidst the oil industry-fueled construction boom of the 1970s and 80s in Caracas, Venezuela, developer David Brillembourg set out to build a massive office and commercial complex that included the tower now known as Torre David. Located in close proximity to the seat of financial and political power in the city, the tower was intended for hotel use up to it’s 16th floor with office space for financial institutions on the remaining 27 floors. Brillembourg death in 1993 and the collapse of the financial sector in 1994 left the complex unfinished. Construction funding dried up, and the country fell into political turmoil. Brillembourg’s assets - and the complex itself - were taken over by Fogade, Venezuela's Deposit Guarantee and Bank Protection Fund.  As Hugo Chavez came to power, it became essentially state-owned. 


  • As a consequence of the state-wide economic chaos, Caracas saw a rapid population increase in the following decade as people from the countryside moved to the city in search of employment. The partially finished tower was looted and became derelict. 
  • Amidst the pressures of housing shortage and a series of storms that flooded parts of the city in 2007, a group of desperate citizens sought refuge in the complex. What started as temporary squats with tents has since become a well organized, long-term occupation of the lower 28 floors of the tower. Torre David is now home to a community of approximately 3000 residents who have built-out the tower’s bare floor plates to varying degrees of comfort. In addition to housing, the building now holds businesses, a church, a basketball court, as well as an informal day care on the 28th floor, and has its own security force. 
  • Space distribution, water and electrical distribution and garbage disposal is organized through a resident organization affiliated with the building’s church. Led by the pastor and representatively governed by a smaller group, the organization includes dedicated coordinators for each of the floors, occupied by approximately 15 families. A clear application process has been devised for prospective residents. Control over level of build-out for each dwelling space, however, lies with each individual resident. 
  • While Chavez’s regime was built on land expropriation ‘for the public good’, he established a decree that allowed the formation of so-called Urban Land Committees (Comités de Tierras Urbanas, or CTUs).  CTUs enable citizens who live in self-built homes on occupied land to appeal to the government for title to the land. Today, Torre David’s residents hope to leverage this mechanism to achieve legal status for their claim to the tower’s floor plates. Once a representation of financial power and the hand of a single developer, Torre David has become the symbol of a cohesive, organized and self-governed community. Decision-making in the tower is communal, and operates as a product of “concentric circles of influence and authority”. In spite of their precarious legal status as tenants of the tower, residents continue to work collectively towards improvements of water and electricity infrastructure.

role of the architect

  • This process has most recently been supported by the Caracas-based architecture firm Urban-Think Tank (U-TT) whose documentary book on the tower brought the details of Torre David’s vertical community to public attention in 2013. As outside observers at first, U-TT has slowly gained insight into the issues of the community and has gained trust of leadership members. 
  • U-TT has since leveraged their expertise to help residents consider options for improving access to water and electricity, as well as strategies for efficient and cost-effective vertical circulation in a high-rise whose elevators were never put in. Acting as advocates for the community, U-TT has been able to engage the elevator company Schindler in conversations about an alternative vertical ‘bus’ built on a counterweight principle of balanced ascending and descending cabins that operate at intervals with stops every five floors. 
  • Here, finding win-win situations in the engagement of private companies, leveraging knowledge of programmatic considerations, and an ability to connect experts to opportunities for experimentation and innovation as a means of funding and supporting improvements to the building can be seen as important aspects of the (expanded) role of the architect.

2_Tempelhof Airport – architects framing a field for democratized actions


  • Counter to Berlin’s other airports, Tempelhof Airport occupies prime real estate among the central districts of Berlin. The 1.23 kilometer long building is one of the few built components of the two major urban axes flanked by government ministries that were key to Hitler’s plan for Germania. This plan involved the destruction and rebuilding of large areas of the city and  deliberately used the scale of buildings as expression of an extent of political power never seen before. A comparatively small component of Hitler’s North-South Axis, the airport building was completed in 1936, but never fully built out. 
  • As a key piece of infrastructure, it escaped the bombs of the allied forces and later was the site of the Berlin airlift. Even though it was opened for civil and commercial air traffic from 1951 until 1975 (when Tegel airport was built at the edge of the city), it continued to be controlled by the US Air Force until 1993. 
  • It has been the property of the City of Berlin ever since, and was declared a listed building in 1995. Its use as an commercial airport continued until 2008 when the city government solicited concepts for the reuse and potential development of both airport building and airfield. 


  • The process for developing the future of building and airfield involved a range of stakeholders and the formation of government subsidiary bodies that were tasked with organizing and administering the future use of the building (Tempelhof Projekt GmbH), and the airfield respectively (Gruen Berlin GmbH). 
  • Tempelhof Projekt GmbH proceeded with marketing and rental of the airport building, and supervised the planning and execution of use proposals for the building. Leveraging size, location, and at times, the appearance of the building, Tempelhof Projekt GmbH has since rented a majority of the available space for use as diverse as movie sets, headquarters of the Berlin Police, a dancing school, fairs and product launches, political gala events,  a kindergarten as well as a public refugee cafe where Berliner can go to offer German lessons to new arrivals. The cafe space caters to the 3000 refugees that have been housed in one of the hangars since 2015. 
  • While the diverse reuse of the airport building has been achieved through Tempelhof Projekt GmbH in a mostly traditional role of ‘property manager’, the process of developing the airfield offers a more innovative model. Initiated by Berlin’s Urban Development Agency, Ideenwerktstadt Tempelhof (idea-workshop Tempelhof) brought together a team of architects and urban thinkers to jointly develop a concept for activation and opening of the airfield, taking into account complex and uncertain planning processes over long time spans. 
  • The resulting “dynamic masterplan” created by Raumlabor Berlin, Studio Urban Catalyst, and mbup, focused on the first five years of development, while outlining both process and framework for long-term development. It introduced the concept of “pioneer fields”, an area dedicated to interim use initiated by citizens who could take over and program land for up to three years once their proposal was vetted by a governing body. 
  • This “learning urbanism” was intended for the testing of ideas for long-term use whose lessons would later be integrated into more conventional planning and development. 

role of the architect

  • The team of architects engaged a diverse set of stakeholders in two different ways: During the actual Ideenwerkstatt process, the architects developed tools of engagement that allowed them to gather input from the public. 
  • These tools involved a scale airfield large enough to walk and sit on, that framed, literally, the place of/for discussion. 
  • Secondly, framed and guided by architects, the pioneer fields constituted an opportunity for “public idea development” whose implementation could bypass conventional prolonged permitting processes. The fields allowed multiple stakeholders and interested parties to act and interact with immediate results. 
  • In the dynamic masterplan, interim use, for the first time, is integrated and implemented as a catalyst in a process-oriented and participatory development process -- a process that could easily be envisioned for testing and implementing in the reuse of a large urban building.

3_Haus der Statistik – architects catalyzing community within an historical artifact


  • Designed by Manfred Hörner, Peter Senf, and Joachim Härter in 1968, the Haus der Statistik (House of Statistics) is part of the larger ensemble of buildings surrounding Berlin’s Alexanderplatz. The complex consists of three large interconnected buildings - nine, eleven, and twelve stories in height - that frame the beginning of Karl-Marx-Allee, the flag-ship parade and shopping street built to signify progress and the ideals of Communism in East Berlin after World War II. Haus der Statistik together with Haus des Lehrers (House of the Teacher), Haus der Elektroindustrie and others as part of a restructuring of Berlin’s Alexanderplatz after socialist ideals, and housed governmental departments - the state department of statistics as well as part of the ministry of state security (STASI). 
  • At ground level, the building contained commercial units offering products from the USSR, as well as art works highlighting the virtues of communism. Together with the highly visible urban position of the building, these publicly accessible areas functioned strategically as vehicles for government propaganda.
  • Used by federal government agencies after Germany’s reunification in 1989, the building became obsolete in 2008 and has been vacant ever since, with the brief exception of serving as the site of a summer theater festival in 2011. Due to its age, the complex was deemed ‘unfit’ for contemporary office use. 
  • A competition was held for the urban block containing the Haus der Statistik site in 2010. The winning team, Berlin architects Augustin/Frank, proposed a “living quarter in the park” - series of tall courtyard typologies that connect pedestrians to the public green spaces behind Karl-Marx-Allee beyond - and converting this highly exposed urban site almost entirely to residential use. 
  • While Haus der Statistik is significant as part of the larger urban ensemble, it has not been put on the register of preserved buildings. Yet, it quickly became clear that a renovation and rehabilitation of the existing concrete frame structure would be less costly than the demolition and new construction of the competition winning entry. 
  • In early 2015, the building, owned by the German Federation of States, was offered to the State of Berlin to accommodate much-needed refugee housing, but Berlin judged the building as too difficult to retrofit and declined the offer. 


  • When the Berlin Senate moved to revisit the Alexanderplatz area once again in 2015 through a process that mixed workshop of experts with public workshop platforms citizens took to the street and demonstrated for the preservation of the building as a site for artist work spaces. 
  • Led by members of the Alliance of Endangered Studio Spaces (AbBA), this moment of protest led to the foundation of a multi-faceted collaborative venture called “Initiative Haus der Statistik” that included two architecture collaboratives (Raumlabor Berlin, Die Zusammenarbeiter), two non-profit organizations involved with refugee housing and employment (Martinswerk, Cucula, Gyalpa), three non-profits focusing on artist housing and initiatives in the cultural sector (Z/KU, AbBA, Schlesische 27), and four organizations supporting citizen participation in urban development). The Initiative has since worked towards leveraging Haus of Statistik’s spatial resources towards a unique shared space that brings together the underserved artist and refugee communities in a highly visible and politically significant location of the city. 

role of the architect

  • The goal of the “Initiative Haus der Statistik” has been to support public engagement and debate around the re-use of the building. Raumlabor Berlin has been involved in five aspects of this process, leading in some, and contributing in other areas. 
  • On the one hand, they have supported the initiative with traditional architectural expertise in assessing the existing building complex and its use potentials while taking into account relationships to the immediate urban context. 
  • The use concept of bringing both refugees and artists together in a new cultural hub at Alexanderplatz was developed in concert with their initial proposals for reusing the complex. 
  • They have also been instrumental in bringing together key partners in this initiative in order to create a network of expertise and advocacy around integrating two marginalized populations in the Haus der Statistik project. 
  • As members of the larger group, they have worked to communicate the project to administrative bodies and citizens alike, and to develop tools of engagement for various public workshops. 
  • Lastly, the initiative has developed a roadmap for the process of renovating and developing the building that engages all stakeholders in a carefully choreographed sequence of events of so-called “Vernetzungsratschlaege” (networked consultations) that invite Berlin’s citizens to publicly debate shared questions surrounding the development. 

Summary_Framing Collectivity

  • As large urban buildings provide spatial frameworks open enough to enable a multitude of programmatic possibilities, the actual sharing of these spatial resources by multiple stakeholders often requires ‘secondary architectures’ (more specific spatial frameworks that structure occupation)
  • Moreover, as such buildings transition from singular models of ownership and use towards collectively managed models of occupancy, the process structuring territorial negotiation, debate, and governance can be seen as an additional type of framework (time- and event-based) that requires design expertise
  • By articulating actions and areas in which architectural expertise and engagement has taken place in the context of collaborating with multiple powers and disparate skakeholders in the above case studies, the article draws attention to this way of ‘framing engagement’ that might include physical artifacts as much as process timelines that structure stakeholder input. 
  • as we embrace and propagate the sharing of spatial resources in the contemporary city, is there an argument to be made for the continued (but collective) developed of ‘large buildings’ to foster precisely the kinds of collective management and power sharing models that are evolving around these extra-large urban buildings? 
  • ...
  • 1 Comments   –  Login to comment

  • aftabkhatri

    aftabkhatri ·  Sep 24, 18 5:02 pm

    You seem to be upset over nothing. Sure you did not get the best review but you did not get the worst either. There is room for improvement and I think you should embrace it.
Next page » Loading