September 8, 2010

USA: Can Architecture Help the Elderly Age Gracefully?

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NEW YORK, NY / Co.Design / September 8, 2010


Can Architecture Help the Elderly Age Gracefully?
By Jenara Nerenberg

Matthias Hollwich thinks so, and he's set up a new program at the University of Pennsylvania to explore how.

Architecture and aging. It seems like the only connection between the two would be some vague master's thesis. But a multidisciplinary field involving sociologists, urban planners, and psychologists has sprung up to answer questions of whether architecture can aid the elderly, one of the fastest growing demographics in the developed world.

At the forefront is University of Pennsylvania professor Matthias Hollwich, the organizer of UPenn's conference, Aging and Architecture (pictured right with business partner, Mark Kushner). He is also the co-founder of Architizer and a Principal at HWKN, where he initiated a partnership with the Bauhaus to envision the ideal, age-sensitive city of the future, the Geropolis. "It's a re-designed German city with the different lifestyle groups in mind -- within the 3 most typical urban conditions (center, suburbia, siedlung). For all of these areas we designed individual interventions," Hollwich tells Co.Design.

What should everyone know about design for the aging? "Design for yourself and take into account that moving and socializing will get harder. Architecture, urbanism, and products and services need to compensate for that," says Hollwich. "I believe that sustainability (saving the planet) and designing for an aging society are the two biggest topics we as designers have to tackle in our lifetime."

Should architects and designers adopt more long-term thinking and have the elderly in mind at the inception of a project?

First, the interesting thing about "the elderly" is that they are YOU and ME in a few years--so in the end, we design for our own future! And yes, architects should have long-term thinking in mind--but they should turn the issue around and use aging as inspiration. There are so many amazing things we can come up with once we start to think about how we can make our cities and architecture more social, accessible, healthy and add services and volunteering programs that compensate for upcoming social and physical deficits, which will benefit all age groups including the young, the busy, and lazy.

How many elderly people are actually involved in designs for their demographic?

That is a good question--I think most people wake up at the moment of retirement and re-engineer their own lives, but very few pre-conceive necessary changes at the time they are active participants in the work force -- which is a time they might have more power to change on a grander scale. I believe we have to declare ourselves "old" much more early--so we start tackling these upcoming issues earlier and broader.

Is the market for aging designs large and/or profitable?

According to the US Census, the 50+ market has over $1.6 trillion in spending power and a net worth that's nearly twice the US average....

How is aging and architecture more of a cross-disciplinary area than traditional architecture?

When we talk about aging and architecture we have to include sociologists, doctors, politicians, the "elderly" and many other disciplines in the design and discourse. But it is important to remember that the architecture design should not just be considered support of all these efforts, but more of an enabler for new potential. In a study with the Bauhaus, we envisioned Geropolis, the city of the future. We developed, in an interdisciplinary team, the future of German cities in respect to health, income, transportation, services, housing, food, support, etc. It became clear that by designing for the elderly all disciplines are involved and need to have their influence onto the city of the future to really make a difference.

Jenara Nerenberg is a freelance writer/producer in Asia, regularly on CNNGo, and a graduate of Harvard and UC Berkeley. E-Mail:  jenera@fastcompany.com

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