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09.29.2010
Comment> Retired, but Never Retiring
Designing housing for the elderly, Dutch architect Arnoud Gelauff has discovered that there is no need to fall back on antiseptic and depressing designs.
Arons en Gelauff's De Rokade in Groningen
Arons en Gelauff's De Rokade in Groningen.
 Allard Van Der Hoek
 
 

Mick Jagger, Elton John, Tina Turner. It’s the generation that invented our youth culture, the idea of an entirely self-determined lifestyle and the ideal of eternal youth. Remember Keith Richards falling out of a palm tree? That’s the generation for whom we’re currently building retirement homes.

We have designed a project, De Plussenburgh, in Rotterdam that is a groovy highrise for seniors 55 and older. The project contains 104 apartments in two rectangular boxes. An elevated slab stands on huge diagonal stilts that rise out of a shallow pool. The vertical box supports it. On one side the facades are glazed in bright colors, the other side has wavy balconies. The building is so incredibly exuberant and colorful that some people find it hard to believe that it houses apartments, let alone homes for the elderly. Its appearance has nothing to do with the low-key aesthetics usually assigned to this type of building, just like many baby boomers will have nothing to do with the general idea of a stiff-hipped sexagenarian.

Today’s elderly don’t helplessly dote, letting themselves be locked up in stuffy nursing homes. Baby boomers are used to freedom of choice and to doing things their own way. Nevertheless, at some point in their lives, they face the same problem as previous generations: With the kids all gone, the so-called “empty nesters” risk getting stuck in a family home that doesn’t fit their current lifestyle and has become hard to maintain. Suddenly a suburb can prove to be a very lonely place. For want of an alternative, many stay put—until they’re wheeled out and brought to a nursing home. Hardly anyone moves to a nursing home by choice. And it’s no wonder: The hospital atmosphere of most homes for the elderly smells of heteronomy and death. In addition, the extensive everyday care these homes provide is far too much for many seniors, making this also a topic of economic relevance.

In the Netherlands, a process of reinvention of housing for the elderly already started back in the 1980s with care services being outsourced and delivered upon request. Ordering care is now just as easy as ordering a pizza. The significant difference with conventional homes for the elderly is that care becomes a supplement of the apartment instead of vice versa.

Typologically, homes for the elderly originated with hospitals. In Europe, those were often placed in forests or at the edge of town so patients could benefit from fresh air, light, and space. Nursing homes, in consequence, were also located in the countryside. Today, however, the isolation of living far away from the cultural and social facilities of the city is many an elderly person’s worst nightmare. It might be at odds with sentimental ideas about little grannies living in cottages, but highrise housing for the elderly isn’t such a bad idea, as long as high-quality collective spaces are part of the scheme. In suburbia, the private realm of the family home usually is big. Public space around the home is negligible and collective space often nonexistent. In housing for the aged, the private realm may shrink in size, when it should be growing in quality and supplemented by opportunities for collectivity and high-quality, buzzing public space.

Today, many older people feel that they’re taking a step down on the housing ladder when trading in their family home for a serviced apartment in the woods or on the back streets. This really should be a positive step upwards! The ageing couple moving out should be able to boast to their left-behind neighbors about the beautiful smaller apartment where they have a fantastic view, a concierge, and a bus stop in front of the door. Their children should envy parents for their well-illuminated condo in the town center where an excellent lifestyle is within reach. This is where architecture comes into play.

Our building De Rokade in Groningen is a sleek tower with a cruciform plan. It sits on a three-story plinth with collective and commercial spaces and is connected to a huge nursing home, but appears to be completely autonomous. The building offers three different layout options for the 74 apartments that all have good exterior spaces. Probably its most striking feature is the round windows bubbling up the facades, making it an extremely playful design. Who says that old people want to sit behind geraniums, with a cushion under their elbows, watching the grass grow? Maybe they’d rather hang out in a round window bay and enjoy the view over the city.

The members of a generation for which every wrinkle is a drama don’t necessarily want to shout it from the rooftops when they’re starting to develop little ailments, so care facilities should be discreetly plugged into the housing scheme. It’s all about offering options while preserving autonomy instead of prescribing a nursing-home lifestyle. Meals on Wheels need not be marketed to those unable to cook, but aimed at those who, maybe only today, choose not to cook. The nurse that stops by every afternoon is for company—and sure she can help you remember to take your pills. Think of it as a luxury hotel.

At De Plussenburgh, if you need care, it is there. An inconspicuous elevator shaft connects the highrise to the nursing home situated behind it, where medical aid, cooks, and other help is available. The concept of “stealth care architecture” is continued inside, where flexible apartments with clever floor plans offer lots of possibilities. White concrete walls with a bamboo relief replace dreary hospital wallpaper and bumper-railings in the corridors. The concrete walls are just as strong as the standard product and do what they have to do, without advertising it. In a way, they’re representative of our overall approach: trying to find solutions to problems by not aesthetisizing them, but by re-thinking them from the ground up and not being content with canned answers. If we want to cater to the “young old,” we have to offer them beautiful buildings with possibilities for customization instead of last resorts.

One of our new projects, Oosterhoogebrug, which we’re going to build in a suburb of the city of Groningen, illustrates the latest development in housing for the aged: 70 apartments will be combined with a tiny nursing home counting only 16 units. The project also houses shops, a small medical center, a gym, and a children’s daycare center as well as a large new cultural complex. The aim is to create a new town center for this suburb. Should the population pyramid reverse, the apartments can easily be used as regular market homes. Or, if the development goes in the opposite direction, they can be split in two, making it an attractive long-term investment.

These projects demonstrate that housing projects for the elderly can become more affordable as well as more chic. The jaunty aesthetics of our designs might be provocative, but they suit a generation that wants to be anything but tired and gray. These are buildings that give their inhabitants an opportunity to identify with their new homes instead of just putting up with them.

Arnoud Gelauff

Arnoud Gelauff is an architect and co-founder of Arons en Gelauff Architecten, Amsterdam. He presents his work at the University of Pennsylvania School of Design’s New Aging Conference on October 1-2.