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Aging Gracefully: How a New Architecture for Old Age Helps Everyone

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Architect Matthias Hollwich's book New Aging offers a radical blueprint for rethinking and redesigning old age

Architect Matthias Hollwich's mission, simply put, is promoting a design philosophy that makes everyone more comfortable, connected, and happy. Sure, the 44-year-old's recently released book, New Aging, which draws from his work and research around aging, society, and designing spaces for the elderly, both with his New York-based architectural office, HWKN, and his work with students at the University of Pennsylvania, may sound like it's focused on the later half of life. But as he’s discovered through practice and personal experience, designing buildings and cities to better accommodate the eldest among us helps us all by creating communities that are more socially connected and accessible.

"My suggestion is to make it personal," says Hollwich, whose own experience as a child in Germany, when his grandmother passed away at home, surrounded by family, sparked an early interest in the subject. "Forget about the theory and look at the little things, think about how you would want to live your entire life. Too many people wake up on the topic of aging when they retire, and that’s too late. We’re active and influential today; now is the most important moment to take charge and make an impact."

Curbed spoke with Hollwich about his research and new book, and learned some new rules for architects aiming to design spaces for a healthier society for every age.

Think of Social Architecture Like Social Media

"Social architecture can sometimes be viewed as a negative term, like you’re forcing people to do something they don’t want to do. We want to think about it more like social media; find a way to focus on people’s interests, wants, and desires. Don’t try to re-educate people, channel their social energy into the right direction. We can’t go back in time and recreate the social glue between families. What we can do is come up with a new idea of family, and design spaces that allow for neighbors to have the same kind of emotional responses as family members. For architects, that could be reflected in how you design a hallway. Many think of it as a required part of a building, basically lost space. Instead, you can design it like a front yard or porch, an area where you can actually start to meet your neighbors and do things together. Make these types of places areas that encourage moments of reflection and connection. Half of nursing home residents are there because of social deficits and losing their social net, not because of health issues; we need to find ways to help them connect."

Nursing Homes Should Never Be Alone

"There should never be freestanding nursing homes. They should be part of a larger building or complex, so there’s a healthy balance of nursing home patients to the general population. It’s very important that the amenities are organized so it’s not segregated. You want people to go in and visit whomever is staying in a nursing home, and when it’s a building by itself, that creates a barrier. Have programs in the nursing home that attract people and make them want to come inside. It shouldn’t be a burden, or make people feel guilty visiting. Create a quiet, meditative space, and make it something that benefits everyone. There was a story about a preschool near Seattle that integrated the students with residents in a nursing home; and soon, it became an amazing benefit for both generations. Bringing these generations together will benefit each other and make life that much more interesting."

Create a LEED System for the Elderly

"It would be amazing to create a LEED system for the elderly, like a platinum rating for buildings that support the elderly. The thing we really need to realize is that these spaces benefit everyone. The social hallway I was talking about earlier—that makes everyone socialize more. When you look at a building through the lens of everyone who may use it, you make everyone’s life better. Like LEED, promoting these ideas isn’t just good for the building, it’s good for the wider environment. And if someone like a mayor asks, why should we do this, just remind them, in 20 years, when you’re older and break your hip, you’re going to need this, too. We’re all going to be in this position and need to start thinking about our futures."

Skyler: A New Aging Tower from Hollwich Kushner on Vimeo.

Focus on Transitional Moments

"To showcase these ideas, we created a model development, the Skyler, that mixes micro and communal apartments, and includes a mix of spaces that support different interactions and allow the building to "age" with the residents. The elderly should have the ability to transition after retirement, into a second activity area, so to speak, where they’re investing in a hobby, volunteering, even starting their own business. They should have a place where they can find spiritual help, and end-of-life guidance. And the best part is, there facilities support the rest of the community. That educational center can help people of every age, and a spiritual center can benefit an 18-year-old looking for guidance, who may just find an elderly person who can give them guidance. It can create a beautiful, cross-programmatic approach to design, and create an entire lifecycle of interactions within a building."