Anti-tank 15cm mortar bunker near Wissant, France; photo by Nick Sowers.

Anti-tank 15cm mortar bunker near Wissant, France; photo by Nick Sowers.

In former West Berlin, an artificial hill known as Devil’s Mountain rises 375 feet above the Brandenburg plain. Constructed by the Allies after World War II, the hill contains an estimated 12 million cubic meters of debris gathered from the post-war Berlin wreckage. Beneath the rubble, Albert Speer’s Nazi military-technical college lies buried and forgotten, part of Hitler’s plan to create a new Berlin. Atop the hill sits a former U.S. and British spy station, its white tower surrounded and topped by a series of matching geodesic domes. During the Cold War the NSA Field Station Teufelsberg intercepted East German and Soviet radio communication. Since 1991, it has remained abandoned.

A new battle over this site has emerged. A private developer purchased the land after the Berlin real estate boom of the 1990s, but the saturated market made construction unprofitable. Meanwhile, veterans groups that served at Teufelsberg are petitioning the U.S. Congress to create a Cold War monument. During this battle, however, the structure has descended from historic preservation through mismanaged redevelopment plans to vandalism and informal urban touring

For some, sites like Teufelsberg are eyesores of a long military presence. For others, they are a place of mysterious history and forbidden exploration. For Architecture for Humanity, an international design advocacy nonprofit based in San Francisco, these sites represent a world of creative opportunity waiting to be released.

Every other year, Architecture for Humanity’s Open Architecture Challenge brings international attention to issues in the built environment affecting the health, prosperity, and well-being of under-served communities. This year’s Open Architecture Challenge targets abandoned, closed, and decommissioned military sites and asks how they can be repurposed to publicly serve the communities surrounding them.

Unrestricted Access

The 2011 Open Architecture Challenge: [UN] RESTRICTED ACCESS challenges architects and designers to partner with community groups across the world and develop innovative solutions to re-envision closed, abandoned, and decommissioned military sites. The six-month competition requires designers to work with the communities surrounding these former places of conflict to transform oftentimes hostile locations into civic spaces built for the public good.

This year marks a milestone: in the United States alone more than 235 military sites are scheduled for closure or realignment. The U.S. military was under orders to downsize 5 percent of its entire infrastructure on or before September 15, 2011 in accordance with the 2005 Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) ruling. The ruling will force the relocation of more than 125,000 military personnel and their families.

It’s not just inside the United States. Dotting the global landscape, decommissioned military installations leave their mark. They are symbols of triumph, pride, pain, and the unforeseen consequences of military aggression. These abandoned structures and ghost towns can disrupt neighborhoods and split entire communities.

Whatever the politics of decommissioning, base closure results in dislocation for the local population, the loss of jobs, and a reduction in business revenues. The rapid removal of the military creates a hole in the economy that must be filled promptly. In addition, these base closures leave sites with years of environmental remediation work, including toxic leaks into the soil and contaminated structures. All of these become an immense obstacle for redevelopment and for the regeneration of the community.

What will happen when Futenma Air Station closes on Okinawa? Will a plan be in place to clean up contamination and patch the hole left by decades of U.S. military presence? Or will redevelopment efforts stall, with Futenma coming to resemble the deserted Soviet airfields of Northern Asia?

The design competition will be judged by an international, inter-disciplinary panel of experts in various fields, such as base realignment processing, real estate and building professionals, former world leaders, and members of communities that have experienced a base closure or demilitarized site.

Through this process, Architecture for Humanity is compiling hundreds of innovative ideas and designs to inspire and guide other communities in similar situations. At the close of the competition, the designs will be accessible to all on the open-source design solutions network Worldchanging. Prize money for finalists will be commensurate with the size of the field of entrants. Finalists will be featured in a planned physical and online Challenge exhibit and publication, and the designs will have a platform to tremendously influence a conversation of increasing pertinence.

Repurposing – A Good Thing

On the east bank of the Mississippi, an unoccupied naval reserve complex known as Naval Support Activity (NSA) New Orleans sits among the Katrina reconstruction. The three massive structures consist of 1.5 million square feet, six floors each, of offices and structured parking. When the facility closed on September 15, the New Orleans Advisory Task Force (NOATF) jumped in early to develop a nine-point plan for redeveloping the site, including creating a reuse unique to New Orleans while generating jobs and economic stability in the recovering city. NOATF has proposed a command center for disaster relief planning and emergency action. This center will attract the growing disaster research and training industries that have grown out of recent global disasters and give them access to a particularly vulnerable region of the world. The site will also double as a shelter in times of crisis. Architecture for Humanity hopes to generate several solutions to this cause by highlighting NSA New Orleans in the competition.

Although these sites are often laid to waste, Architecture for Humanity sees them as tremendous opportunities. The United State alone will spend billions of dollars of taxpayer funds to do environmental remediation on the 12 million square feet of U.S. military space scheduled to close this year. Can we use this opportunity to bring economic stability to areas deserted by closed bases?

Repurposing these closed and abandoned bases not only helps clean up the contamination left behind but also brings opportunities for investment and redevelopment. Whether designers propose to refurbish the abandoned flak towers in Vienna or to master-plan the enormous blimp hangars at the Tustin air base in Orange County, California, these reuse plans address socioeconomic imbalances caused by their initial closures. Repurposing these vacant lots creates jobs, attracts investment, improves the health and living of residents, spurs community participation, preserves history, and helps shift attitudes toward healing and positive reconstruction. The redevelopment is often greener as well by reusing existing infrastructure and keeping built structures in good repair.

“This is an incredible opportunity to transform places of defense into spaces of public good,” notes Cameron Sinclair, co-founder of Architecture for Humanity. “Through this competition we have the opportunity to create strong anchors in communities that will generate thousands of jobs and bring economic stability to those who surround these sites.”


Globally we see opportunity at every site. Can we re-envision the more than 750,000 abandoned bunkers that pepper the Albanian landscape? Is there a second life for the recently bombed Libyan military strongholds? Can we use environmental diplomacy to re-imagine Guantánamo Bay Detention Center? Is there a way to turn vacated bases in Afghanistan into places of learning?

The 2011 Open Architecture Challenge seeks to provide solutions to these unanswered questions. This is an open call to action – the first of its kind. Architecture for Humanity is asking the global design and construction community to identify retired military installations in their own backyard, to collaborate with local stakeholders, and to reclaim these spaces for positive social, economic, and environmental change. The competition is calling for international cooperation, raising awareness of the need for collaboration.

We hope to spark a global dialogue geared toward successful transitions in the built environment. The competition will draw attention to the impact that these bases have on surrounding communities and the importance of planning their closures. In the end, the competition will inspire designers in cities around the world, launching the transformation of thousands of abandoned sites like Teufelsberg from something onerous into something spectacular.

For more information, to register for the competition, or to get involved in other ways, visit the competition website.

Foreign Policy In Focus contributor Chris Bystedt earned a BArch from the University of Notre Dame and is completing a Master of International Studies degree with a focus on Urbanization from the University of San Francisco. He plays a key research role with the Open Architecture Challenge team at Architecture for Humanity.