New York architect Matthias Hollwich was just 38 years old when he started thinking about retirement living. He was far from ready to hang up his pencil, but “in pre-preparation for my midlife crisis” he started to research what his future might look like.
“Everything I saw surprised me in a negative way,” said the German-born principal of Manhattan studio Hollwich Kushner.
The idea of age-based formulaic building design did not cut it for the now 48-year-old, even if the first step is the attractively packaged “lifestyle communities” for the over-60s. To him, options beyond that seemed even worse.
“Once you retire, especially in America, there’s a whole industry that pretends to take care of you,” Hollwich says.
“Retirement communities, assisted living facilities, nursing homes – all of these are areas where old people are being stuck together in one place to get them services. But it does not really support people’s wants, needs and desires, which have not changed [as they] get older. It’s basically life support, but it’s not really what life is all about.”
Hollwich’s Skyler prototype includes a spiritual centre for reflection and meditation.
The irony, as Hollwich sees it, is that a retirement community used to be for the last five years of your life. “Now people live 10, 20, 30 or 40 years in these places. So, you remove these incredible people away from the day-to-day activities of society, and you store them in Florida and forget about them.”
The biggest thing missing in these facilities is diversity of age, says Hollwich, who as a child loved engaging with his grandmother in the family’s multigenerational household.
“How boring is it just to be with the same age group?” he asks. “It becomes like a simulated reality: you all meet at some point for your little cocktail, and then you go golfing. But if you are, instead, in the middle of a vibrant life where you still participate in all different activities, that is really worth living.”
While teaching a course on architecture at the University of Pennsylvania, Hollwich had an idea for a book on good places in which to age. He’d envisaged listing 100, but ran out at 12.
Skyler is a vertically layered sculptural tower that supports its occupants throughout their lifetime. Taking a cue from co-living projects, which Hollwich Kushner designs for companies such as WeLive (the accommodation division of co-workspace provider WeWork), he realised that the model conceived for millennials could easily be adapted for older – and all – generations.
Its facilities range from a nursery for young children, to on-site “stealthcare” (health care provided in a subtle, non-clinical way), to a business hub where residents can continue to work – or even start a new business – post-retirement, and a spiritual centre for reflection and meditation.
The prototype proposes a community of 1,000 people of all ages living in apartments distributed throughout the building. “The most important thing is to create architecture that encourages social interaction,” Hollwich says. He asserts that with the right at-home support (including, importantly, social connection) only five people in 1,000 would end up needing nursing home care.
“When you design buildings that are intergenerational, you need to be super-smart about the programming, the spatial layout, and the activation,” he says. “That’s so exciting. The co-living operators have figured that out, and are doing that now for the millennials. Now you can go above and beyond that, innovate on that concept and open it up for all generations.”
Designing for ageing, or people with disabilities, should be standard in buildings today, and they needn’t look like invalid facilities, Hollwich asserts. “Some things have to be bigger – like doorways and the bathrooms, to allow for wheelchair access – but you can design a beautiful bathroom that feels like a spa.”
In his ideal scenario, all the residents would care for each other in ways that do not feel like a burden but rather an opportunity. This might mean someone dropping off a meal for a neighbour who is not feeling well, or a grandparent figure caring for little ones while their parents are busy.
Currently, Hollwich Kushner is working with a developer to build the first iteration of Skyler – not as a high-rise, but a two-storey building in a suburban neighbourhood in the American city of Atlanta. Hollwich hopes it can open in 2021.
It found that, by the end of 2018, the number of Chinese people 60 or older had reached 249 million – yet there were only 29,800 registered senior care institutes, with 3.9 million beds, in the whole country. If three per cent of over-60s were to live in elderly care institutions by 2025, the number of beds available should surpass nine million by then, the report said.
This has opened the door – with government approval – for foreign operators to introduce Western-style “lifestyle communities”.
One is Lendlease, Australia’s largest owner, operator and developer of senior living communities, which in July unveiled plans for its first China project, in Zhujiajiao, a heritage water town within the Qingpu district of Shanghai.
Ardor Gardens (Yi Pu Hui) will provide resort-like services and a healthy lifestyle for 1,300 residents in about 850 apartments. Residents should be moving in from 2021. At the start the property will cater to the active elderly only, but it is envisaged that nursing home beds will be offered later.
Twenty-two apartment blocks of four to six storeys are planned amid expansive landscaped grounds with natural waterways running through them, a healing garden, meditation space and 133 different species of trees.
Yang Ai Chian, managing director, Senior Living, China, says Lendlease has tailored every aspect of the project – from spatial design to services – to refine its global experience for local needs.
“We have meticulously researched, planned and reviewed the design and services at Ardor Gardens to ensure they are responding to the needs of our future residents,” she says.
“For example, Chinese seniors love to gather with families or friends for meals and other social activities. As such, we will be incorporating large public spaces that will enable our residents to organise daily activities such as mahjong and family get-togethers.”
“These will be managed by a team of experienced professionals from the luxury hospitality industry.”
The operational structure, however, will be different from that in Australia, where residents buy a unit on a strata title basis.
“In China, we will introduce a membership model, which expires at the time the land lease expires – around 45 years,” Yang says. A monthly service fee will also be charged. Membership is transferable, which Yang says is an opportunity for residents to either anticipate capital gains, or pass on to their children.
She does not expect the company’s model to replace the Chinese family tradition of caring for one’s elderly relatives at home, but notes that modern-day factors, such as the impact of the one-child policy and the tendency for people to move away for work, means more alternatives are needed.
“We are trying to create a change in lifestyle options,” Yang says. “People can choose to retire at home, or in the [seniors] community.”
This article first appeared on scmp.com