Anything but grey


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Anything but grey

Mick Jagger, Elton John, Tina Turner. It’s the generation which 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.

Our project De Plussenburgh in Rotterdam is a groovy highrise for seniors 55 and older. The projects contains 104 living units in two rectangular boxes. A elevated slab stands on huge diagonal stilts that rise out of a shallow pool. The vertical box supports it. On one side the façades are glazed in bright colours, the other side has wavy balconies. The building is so incredibly exuberant and colourful that some people find it hard to believe that it houses apartments – let alone 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 have nothing to do with the general idea of a stiff-hipped sexagenarian.

Today’s elderly aren’t helpless doters who let themselves be locked up in stuffy nursing homes. The baby boomers are used to freedom of choice and doing things differently. Nevertheless, at som point in their lives they face the same problem as previous generations: the kids having left the house, so-called ’empty nesters’ run the risk of getting stuck in a family home which doesn’t fit their current lifestyle anymore and becomes increasingly hard to maintain. Suddenly a suburb can prove to be a very lonely place. But 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, no wonder, as 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 most seniors, making this also a topic of economic relevance.

In the Netherlands, a process of re-invention 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.

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 neighbours 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 towncentre where an excellent life-style 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-storey 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 have good exterior spaces. Probably its most striking feature is the round windows bubbling up the façades, 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 nursinghome lifestyle. Meals on Wheels should not be marketed for those not being able to cook, but aimed at those who, maybe only today, choose to not 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. The in-house doctor doesn’t sit next to the receptionist all day. And there is no giant red cross on the façade.

At De Plussenburgh, if you need care, it is there. An inconspicuous elevatorshaft 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 floorplans 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 just aesthetisizing them, but by re-thinking them from the ground up and not being content with canned answers. Housing for the elderly is a branch of architecture which is often problematized, and problem architecture tends to rub off on its inhabitants. If we want to cater for the ‘young old’, we have to offer them beautiful buildings with possibilities for customization instead of last resorts.

Typologically, homes for the elderly originated from hospitals. Those were 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 neglectable and collective space often non-existent. In housing for the aged the private realm shrinks in size, but it  should grow in quality and be supplemented by possibilities for collectivity and high quality, buzzing public space around.

A new project, 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 centre, a gym and a childrens daycare centre as well a large new cultural centre for this suburb. The aim is to create a new towncentre for this suburb. Should the population pyramid reverse, the apartments in this project can easily be used as regular apartments. 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 chiquer. The jaunty aesthetics of our designs might be provocative, but they suit a generation that wants to be anything but tired and grey. It’s okay if these buildings are recalcitrant and maybe even a little over-confident, because it proves their point. It turns them into conversation pieces, giving their inhabitants an opportunity to identify with their new homes instead of just putting up with them.

Amsterdam, August 7, 2010

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