“You are never too old to set another goal or to dream a new dream.”
That mantra — the memorable maxim of famed British novelist C.S. Lewis — undoubtedly chimes with the philosophies of architect Matthias Hollwich.
The German-American designer and author, cofounder of New York–based firm Hollwich Kushner (HWKN), has recently taken on one of society’s most pressing challenges: the collective needs of our aging population. With the number of U.S. citizens over 65 set to hit 80 million before 2050, it is an unavoidable issue for us all, and Hollwich believes architects can play a key role in ensuring a better quality of life for this burgeoning demographic.
The seed for the project was sown when Hollwich challenged students at the University of Pennsylvania and architects within his firm to “come up with new and progressive ideas that could make aging a fulfilling process.” The architect was amazed by the variety of ingenious solutions that emerged: “A retirement community could become an empowerment environment, a nursing home could turn into a healthiness hub, an informal volunteering app could provide support to older people.”
As the array of ideas flooded in, the scale and complexity of the issues to be tackled become increasingly apparent, and the architect soon realized that a unified approach was essential. “We realized that it would take decades to implement these visions as designers,” says Hollwich. “Doing it one building at a time was just not fast enough.”
Hollwich’s plan of action, therefore, was twofold: First, he poured a vast number of innovative ideas on the subject into a book entitled New Aging, developed in collaboration with Bruce Mau Design. The book is underpinned by rigorous research on the physical and social challenges faced by older people, but the information is displayed in a highly accessible style with the help of brilliantly quirky graphics by illustrator Robert Samuel Hanson.
Presented as a guide to living an active, socially engaging life as an old person, the principles are encapsulated by a series of tenacious chapter headings: “Love aging. Be social. Never retire. You are how you eat. Our homes are our castles.” This is an instruction manual for the ages — all ages — on how we can all contribute to make life better for older people, but also set up systems that will benefit us when we become old ourselves.
The second approach, developed alongside the book by Hollwich’s architecture practice, has a distinctly more architectural angle: Skyler is a high-rise designed specifically with the aging process in mind, harnessing the principles of cross-programming to enrich elderly life. The conceptual skyscraper is the prototype for an entirely new mixed-use building typology, with over 600 residential units specifically designed to accommodate people at different times of life.
Regular apartment types are joined by duplexes for families and communal living spaces for the elderly that help to reduce the risk of social isolation in old age. The dwellings are combined with tailored amenities placed throughout the building, including health and care services, fitness and leisure and retail units, all tied together with vertical mobility systems to facilitate easy movement around the complex, regardless of age.
The functionality of the building facilitates not just a new architectural form, but an entirely new way for old and young to live alongside each other, benefiting from the complementary qualities present within each demographic. The premise is that young would benefit from the wisdom and experience of their older counterparts, while the elderly would be boosted by the energy and spirit of children and young adults.
A places to relax and reflect are located within the upper reaches of the tower, allow people to 'graduate' upwards as they grow older — a variety of communal spaces and a spiritual center offer serene environments that older people can use as and when they want, all within high-ceilinged, light filled spaces with spectacular views of the surrounding city. These uplifting places would also draw younger generations to the building's summit, further merging demographics in a social synthesis rarely seen in today's urban communities.
The possibility that architecture could spur this kind of social synthesis is incredibly exciting for Hollwich. “Skyler takes the challenges of aging and turns them into opportunities,” says Hollwich. “Imagine how the experience of living would be different if you were supported for your whole life. How would it change the way you engage with the people around you? Wouldn’t that be a smarter way to live? A better way to live?”
Hollwich Kushner’s succinct description of the building’s unorthodox design highlights the innovative combination of timeless architectural forms with an avant-garde approach to programming: “Skyler is a hybrid of the classic 1930s New York City tower with the programmatic layering of a city. The building’s unique shape celebrates the sculptural quality of character that comes with age and is unique from every vantage point.”
Ageism remains an ubiquitous form of discrimination, which makes little sense when you consider the fact that we will all grow old — and within a few years, there will be far more elderly people than the current system of nursing homes and hospitals can realistically support. Hollwich’s message is therefore a timely one, and both New Aging and Skyler should help force this key issue into the mainstream discourse of the public and the architectural profession alike.
Just like C.S. Lewis’ opening quote, Hollwich’s own motto — “Live smarter now to live better forever” — should break the status quo and get you thinking ahead, no matter what your age may be.
All images and video courtesy of Hollwich Kushner, Bruce Mau Design and Robert Samuel Hanson. Matthias Hollwich is a cofounder of Architizer.