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This e-com company helped kill shopping malls. Now it’s moving into one

Jasper Architects reimagined a former concrete shopping mall, giving it more natural light and an abundance of terraces.

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Just on the east side of the line that once divided Berlin in half, a former East German shopping mall from the 1970s has been given a new life. After years of underwhelming sales, the mall’s owners decided to turn the six-story mall into an office building to serve the city’s vibrant startup scene.

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The first tenant of this adapted building is the online clothing retailer Zalando, a Europe-focused business worth $27 billion—and one of the reasons shopping malls like this are becoming obsolete.

[Photo: ©HB Esch/courtesy Jasper Architects]

The project came about through a design competition launched in 2016 by the Signa Group, an Austria-based real estate company that has taken over several big retailers in Germany and was looking for new ways of dealing with malls that were struggling to survive in the era of e-commerce. Signa is not alone in rethinking these spaces. Many enclosed shopping malls in the U.S. are losing tenants and undergoing conversions to more lucrative real estate projects like residential communities and e-commerce fulfillment centers. The former shopping mall in East Berlin had gone from holding popular retailers to housing a go-kart company and a medical services provider. With retail business drying up, the owners decided the building should shift formats.

[Photo: ©HB Esch/courtesy Jasper Architects]

Rather than tear the structure down, Berlin-based Jasper Architects proposed using the existing concrete frame as the basis for a second life as an office building. This adaptive reuse concept won Jasper the competition.

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“The task of the competition was to reimagine what we could do with this type of building,” says architect Martin Jasper. Roughly 250 feet by 250 feet, the building was a big, thick chunk of concrete. “The challenge always is how do you bring natural light into these spaces. While it was a shopping mall, this was not very important.”

Photo documentation of the building progress on the construction site of UP! Berlin

A common solution, Jasper says, would be to simply turn the blocky building into more of a donut, with an interior courtyard that could bring in more light. But that would have reduced the leasable area and chopped up the type of large, open spaces popular with the tech companies and startups that the mall renovation was geared toward.

[Photo: © Robert Herrman/courtesy Jasper Architects]

Instead of hollowing out the building, Jasper Architects cut voids into the facade from the outside, creating more of an X-shaped structure. Jasper says this ended up adding about a third more area to the facade, bringing a lot more light inside and creating opportunities to add terraces and balconies to nearly every part of the building.

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The architects also convinced local authorities to let them add two more floors at the top. “The existing usable floor area is pretty similar to what was there before,” Jasper says.

[Photo: © Nils Könning/courtesy Jasper Architects]

The result is a newer, brighter eight-story office building, without the waste and environmental impact of tearing down the old mall, landfilling its concrete structure, and replacing it with completely new materials. Zalando, which has leased half of the 675,000-square-foot building, is moving in soon.

“We saved a lot of CO2 footprint there by reusing the structure,” Jasper says. “This shows you how many possibilities there are for reusing these kinds of structures.”