New Buildings for New Aging

On August 9, 2016, architect and author Matthias Hollwich visited with the Encore.org team to chat with us about his work and his book, New Aging. The following is a condensed and edited version of our conversation. {Note: Hollwich, born and raised in Germany, bases his architecture practice Hollwich Kushner in New York, with projects worldwide.}

MARCI ALBOHERYou appear to be a young-ish guy. How did you get interested in the intersection of aging and architecture/design? 

MATTHIAS HOLLWICH: I’m actually 45 years old, and five years ago I looked into statistics and found out that I already surpassed 50 percent of my life expectancy. So I looked into in the future [and asked], what is our society providing for us? All of the things that I found were shocking. I didn’t see anything I would ever like to join, or move into. Who doesn’t want to have a luxury experience at a certain age? It might be good to go to a resort for 2 weeks, 4 weeks, after 8 weeks it gets boring. After 5 years it’s horrifying. And some people live there for 30 years, or 40 years.

And then you have assisted living facilities. Assistance is also great – I love assistance! But then you realize that everyone who’s assisted is the same age, and when do we ever hang out all the time with the same age group? Nursing homes are the next generation of the compartmentalization of an age group. And though [they have] an important place [for frail] older people . . . everyone is overburdened, because you don’t have that informal network that can take some of the burden away and you don’t have the diversity that makes the difference of your day. So all of these things boil up into the perfect storm. I realized that I could change the world, one building at a time, but I’d have to convince many different people. So why not show people a different perspective about aging and living, so that people become their own activists, and demand difference and demand changes?

MADo you feel like you’re a minority voice on this issue, or part of a bigger community of designers and architects?

MH: People are waking up that something needs to change. First, the boomers are out there and are puzzled about what’s coming their way. They really want to make a difference and be self-empowered. Ninety percent of people want to age at home. And right now, about 30 percent stay at home for the rest of their lives, and 60 percent [will] go into nursing homes or assisted living. Entrepreneurs are jumping at this with a curious mind. It’s about opportunity, but also social responsibility. A couple of organizations are popping up, like entrepreneur networks. Aging 2.0 is very active in raising awareness, and a lot of self-initiated groups are trying to make a difference. I see people creating strategic alliances between friends, saying “Why don’t we together organize a building and bring in services that we think we need?”

MAIn your book’s dedication, you mention BOOM, an ’empowerment community,’ which sounds like a wonderful rebranding of a ‘retirement community.’ Tell us about that.

MH: It started as a project from a developer for a site out of Palm Springs, CA. First, we wanted to do nursing homes. Then we thought maybe nursing homes aren’t the right model, maybe assisted living or more retirement communities. We had many different architects collaborate with us. It was a very open and creative process, which is unusual for a project like this. The longer we worked on it, we said it cannot be just for 75+, or 65+ or even 55+. It has to be for someone who’s at least 40. Now in the next iteration, I think we need to forget all of the “plusses.” Ultimately, we should create an environment where people can live all life long. BOOM was the cradle for a lot of new thinking. It was developed in 2008, but because of the housing market challenge it didn’t move into realization. It was really the beginning of many of these thoughts, which became the tips and tricks in New Aging.

MABooks tend to cause things to happen for their authors. Any interesting things you can share that happened for you — for example, new projects, commissions — that came out of writing this book?

MH: Yes – public exposure, lectures, interviews and conversations like this one here today. The other thing is the cutest fan mail, which is awesome! My theory was if this book makes a difference in one person’s life, it’s already a success. And you get mail from people who say, I study this every day and I take one tip and I live it. Recently, a couple contacted me and asked if they could create a podcast for every chapter. I love that. People take it and make it their own. The last chapter is really about passing it on. Everything that we learn in terms of a better future should not just be for us – it should be for everyone else.

MAThe “better future” language is a big part of the encore movement. What do you think is unique about what older people can do to pass it on?

MH: I think there are two sides to it – the person who passes it on, and the other person who absorbs and learns. What I say to younger people is get engaged with the older generation. My grandmother lived at our house until she passed. She was very sick for three years, so we all chipped in and helped. This is really what community and society should be all about. We’re all into it together. We all are aging, and at some point, we’ll need help. If we know how other people have helped us, then we know how to talk and ask for help. When we know how to give help – in a beautiful, noncommittal fashion – then this is an incredible bond that makes every day life richer.

MADo you make a distinction between what you do in terms of intergenerational arrangements and cohousing? And secondly, this work that you write about is happening primarily in the States. Is this an American opportunity, or can it be brought to other countries and cultures?

MH: I did 5 years of research with students from University of Pennsylvania. We found lots of inspiring examples in Europe – the Netherlands, Denmark, Germany – and Japan. Now, China is coming into the mix. Their one-child policy hit them really hard. That’s where I see needs and opportunities. We also did a project in the Ivory Coast, a retirement community for priests who don’t have families. They had a negotiation with a chief from a village who said if you teach my children, the mothers could cook for the priests. So you find unusual but logical connections.