A New Age for Pioneers

Continuing our design for aging guest writer series, Hollwich and Hoffman share their perspective on the future of the field. 

It is ironic that in a country that celebrates individuality, one-third of Americans are relegated in their last 650 days of life to the most banal of environments—the nursing home. This institutional ending to how they have lived their lives is rapidly becoming an unacceptable concept to Baby Boomers, who pioneered different ways of living together in their youth. As a result, Boomers are increasingly determined to live in communities where design is in sync with a sophisticated and active lifestyle. In communities designed to address the challenges of aging, it is now often possible to maintain a higher quality of life than a nursing home can offer within the comfort and security of our own homes, so why should decorated hospitals be the only choice for the final moments in life?

The Prototype
Two years ago we began prototyping a new age-related community in the California Desert near Palm Springs, on a virgin plot of sand; the perfectly square tabula rasa. We invited nine other architects to collaborate with us to produce a new vision for aging, lifestyle, and architecture.

There were two catalysts which defined the beginning of the project and guided our work: firstly, we had to radically re-envision the ways we live at a later age. Secondly, we came to define the Baby Boomers as “mavericks.” Many of them had to prototype their own lives after rejecting the “typical” models that past society offered. Putting the two together, we found the perfect match between need and opportunity—reinventing aging with a generation that had reinvented everything.

We have been addressing how to best define “community” throughout the whole design process. We discovered that any new community focused on “New Aging” needs to be multi-generational at its core. Older residents want to live near their more youthful counterparts. So, rather than targeting residents exclusively in the 55+ age bracket, the project scope is extended to appeal to residents of all ages.

In this way, the community imaginatively embraces the philosophy of “aging in place,” where the focus is on a rich and active life rather than on retirement and withdrawal. The natural liveliness that comes from a multi-generational community extends to an attitude of caring for all. Historically, people help each other in difficult times, and this is deeply embedded in our project. Thus, security is not just promised by having state-of-the-art wellness facilities but by residents knowing they are residing in an active, caring community.

Three Core New Aging Values
We have to allow for the creation of meaningful life. There can be nothing artificial in the community, and people need to be able to express themselves, realize their wants and desires, and embed themselves within a social engine. To do so, we try to envision an architecture that provides everything that the inhabitants need.

The second core value is high-style. We seek to accomplish this by pursuing extraordinary architecture that incorporates state-of-the-art amenities and exceptional experiences. Today most architecture for the “elderly” looks dated, institutional, and depressing. Focusing on high-style inverts the perception of aging, making the community desirable so that the public will envy the people living there—and with that we can create architecture that works with us to fight age discrimination.

Thirdly, it is about a secure future. At the community, we strive to eliminate insecurities. Focusing on methods of non-discrimination, the provisions for health and age care are deeply embedded within the architecture and programming to help eliminate potential discriminations (age, income, sexual orientation, etc.) within the community. For instance, the “nursing home” presents itself as the most exotic and futuristic building of the community in order to encourage friends to visit.

The architecture is meant to empower choices by hosting a variety of designs, supporting respectful socializing, incorporating a variety of programming opportunities, and inspiring through architectural forms. While the micro-communities are unique to each designer’s sensibilities, the core values of the project are manifested through unique gradients between public and private life. Each housing design is intricately interfaced with varying degrees of public spaces. From the interiors of each home, and each room within the home, residents can move directly to and from the larger communal spaces. This creates a sequence of zones that goes from public to private and invites the community to live with each other as they please.

Learning from designing
The enthusiastic response to the Palm Springs project led us to consider a “Community Model,” a blueprint for other locations. Part of this expanded direction of the project is a reaction to the real estate crash of 2008, which has left a swath of vacant properties of all shapes and sizes across the United States. Adapting New Aging values makes us ask such questions as:

–    How do we create a viable community in a vacant strip mall north of Miami?
–    Can we create a retirement village in an empty mid-rise in Vegas?

The financial crash in 2008 exposed architecture for too often being a neutral commodity and 3-D bar graph of capital investment. There needed to be a more personal connection between users and buildings. With the New Aging Community Model, we are trying to navigate this post-crash state of architecture by formulating a new strategy for meaningful personal and collective connections with architecture. This new model finds its core in active community involvement. Community involvement ensures that there is sufficient interest in the project while also creating a positive intellectual and emotional investment between the end-user and the architecture itself. Inhabitants intimately know the building or community before they move in.

This new Community Model tackles the sometimes unbending and hostile attitude of architecture towards its inhabitants. Never is this disparate relationship more evident than when we reach old age. Our bodies no longer possess the ability to adapt to the stifling rigidity of some architectural surroundings. This relationship needs to be inverted in order to create spaces that form around us and allow us to live in the most meaningful and constructive ways possible. We are working to amend this dichotomy by cracking open and exposing the design process and inviting all to enter and share their thoughts, beliefs, and opinions in constructive and meaningful ways. By exploring and creating these shifted paradigms, by testing and refining them, we aim to release all our knowledge as an open-source blueprint to be taken and applied to other communities. We realize that this will be a long process. This is why we have to start now—as a collective—to create something amazing that inspires everyone, young and old, at the same level. Social and communal engagement is vital to the success of the community.

We believe that today is a historic moment in architecture. With a society growing older (which is a beautiful thing—who does not want to live longer) and Baby Boomers aging, we have the opportunity to put architecture back into the driver’s seat for social purposes. It must not be purely functional but rather infused with personality, progressive new organizations, and spectacular new forms and architectural language.

It is the moment where architecture can support a revolution in society—an Aging Revolution.


Matthias Hollwich

Matthias Hollwich, SBA, is a registered European Architect. Before cofounding HWKN, Matthias worked at OMA in Rotterdam and Eisenman Architects and Diller Scofidio + Renfro in New York City. He is currently a visiting professor at the University of Pennsylvania, where he was the creator of an international conference on aging and architecture, New Aging, which was held in the fall of 2010 at UPenn. AAF was pleased to have Matthias lend his expertise and experience to our 2012 Design for Aging Forum

Matthew Hoffman

Matthew Hoffman is currently the head of business development and a project manager at HWKN. This includes his role as Project Manager of BOOM CommunitiesHe is also a visiting professor at The University of Pennsylvania. 

Featured image courtesy of HWKN; Design by J Mayer H for Boom Communities.

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Posted in: Community Engagement, Creative Placemaking, Design for Aging, Design Leadership, Health + Wellness, Print, Technology
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