BOOM! Palm Springs Plans a Wacky, $250m Retirement Community for Gays

The development planned for the Southern California desert wants to prove that aging gracefully can include community, culture, and breathtaking architecture.

After three years studying aging and design, architect Matthias Hollwich uncovered a disturbing truth. "Age discrimination is really prevalent in our society," he says. "Plus, you are actually discriminating against something you will be in your own future." The New York-based principal of Hollwich Kushner, who also co-founded the architect networking site Architizer, thinks architecture can help by creating inspiring, community-oriented spaces where retirees are empowered to give back to society. His new project BOOM, a $250 million development planned for the Palm Springs area that's coordinated by Hollwich's firm, is banking on the fact that hundreds of aging, creative boomers — many of them part of the local gay community — will move here to do it.

[BOOM! The $250 million development planned for outside Palm Springs.]

Hollwich's firm is one of ten architectural firms including Diller Scofidio + Renfro, Juergen Mayer H., and Lot-Ek who are contributing to the project, which will be developed by Los Angeles-based Boom Communities, Inc. Each firm was given a piece of the 100-acre plot and total freedom to inject their personal style into the space. The only requirements for the architects were that their structures had to epitomize high design in order to fight the stereotypical look of retirement communities, and that none of the firms could have ever done work around aging before, so they could come to the project with fresh ideas. The 300 residences will break ground in 2012, a number that will more than double with the completion of phase two.

[BOOM! Hollwich Kushner's dramatic climbing wall challenges the ability of aging residents.]

The project began as part of Hollwich's line of study on architecture and aging at the University of Pennsylvania, which culminated in a conference held last September called New Aging. BOOM is a chance to design a contemporary retirement community from the ground up, one that ignores those stereotypical architectural motions, he says — a ramp here, a wide doorway there— that reinforces the feeling of being a second-class citizen. Throughout BOOM's pedestrian-only community, Hollwich proposed providing elements for a range of abilities that Hollwich says will empower residents. "Inconvenience will help to trigger people and get them to do a little bit more activity than they think they can," he says. If they encounter other people doing the same thing, even better. "It becomes a socializing moment." Landscaping proposals by Surfacedesign offer multiple paths to a park's vista, ranging from stairs to ramps, giving residents the empowering ability to make a choice and help each other along the way.

[BOOM! Surfacedesign's public spaces provide a variety of tactile experiences.]

What began specifically as a community to serve Palm Springs's burgeoning gay community that's 65 and over soon began to skew younger, namely when Hollwich's research uncovered a bigger shift in LGBT lifestyles that happened around 40. "You might shift from a party life into one that's more settled down," he says, making it a perfect time to start looking for different living options. Hollwich then examined other lifestyle trends that changed BOOM's focus even more. For example, even the definition of "family" was different for the gay community, says Hollwich. The people they spoke to considered a wide range of people, including ex-partners and close friends, to be their immediate family, some of whom might not identify as LGBT at all.

[BOOM! Arakawa + Gin's wacky funhouse allows intergenerational play.]

"We got so much response from the outside that asked for it to be a community for all," says Hollwich. So the plan expanded to become more of a destination, with dining, retail, and boutique hotels. Specific elements like the Healing Funhouse by Arakawa + Gins, a colorful, highly textured playground, are designed for both kids to scramble over and for their grandparents to stretch and condition their bodies.

Even though the development is open to all, Hollwich is still counting on the LGBT community to drive BOOM's culture. "The LGBT community has a very entrepreneurial role in society, they choose to be very innovative with how they live their lives," he says. Hollwich hopes to see everything from mentoring programs to art studios to small businesses initiated by the residents in a way that can serve the greater community but also acknowledges the "vibrancy and diversity" the LGBT community is known for. There's no other place like this, he says. "In the gay community, many people go back into the closet after they go into assisted living facilities."

[BOOM! Sadar + Vuga designed one of the boutique hotels that hopes to draw in tourists.]

With BOOM's high-profile architects each contributing work in radically different styles, it does have the overly-speculative scent of a certain other big-ticket desert development, say, a CityCenter for old people. But Hollwich says they have a plan to prevent some of the economic pitfalls that the Vegas development has confronted during its first year of operation. "We don't want to just have this product ready and then get people to buy into it," says Hollwich. "We want people to get involved and become part of the community earlier."

[BOOM! Tsionov-Vitkon's low-slung residences blend into the desert landscape.]

To do that, they've set up an online community, designed by Bruce Mau Design (who also designed the logo and identity) where potential residents can provide feedback on the community and tell the architects what they want to see in the next round of renderings. People will also be able to join advisory boards and put together committees for initiatives like community gardening or theater groups. If they "Like" BOOM on Facebook, says Hollwich, the team will reference their profiles to make sure planned activities are serving their interests.

[BOOM! Logo designed by Bruce Mau Design.]

Additionally, there will be a chance for real-life community building. A popular event promoter in the local LGBT community will be having launch events in 10 cities to recruit new residents. Construction events planned at the site will engage the local community early on and allow potential residents to meet their future neighbors and participate in some activities, like a collaborative building project at a community center.

[BOOM! Lot-Ek's event center will host cultural performances.]

Still, BOOM will have to work extra hard to win the right kind of socially-focused, culturally-savvy resident. It's not nestled in the resurging hipness of Palm Springs, rather, it's on the fringe, in a community called Rancho Mirage, where sleepy golf courses and stucco-covered condos aren't a huge draw. For BOOM to succeed in luring the right brand of design-enthusastic retirees, it will likely have to draw them out of big cities where they have access to urban amenities like world-class restaurants and well-funded museums.

[BOOM! J. Mayer H.'s clubhouse will function as a community center.]

And while catering to active older people with non-traditional draws like a "rooftop disco" — insert visions of Cocoon in the desert —- there are some issues with designing what's essentially a theme park for gay retirees. I'm guessing that healthy, young tourists likely won't want to spend their vacation staying at a retirement home, even if they're welcome, and locals might not want to do their shopping at a nursing home, where extensive healthcare facilities — however well-designed — are so prevalent. There's also the possibility that many potential straight residents who are interested in the design won't feel comfortable in a community driven by gay culture.

Still, if what Hollwich is saying is true, the residents themselves can mold this diverse community into their own version of a gently-graying utopia. Time will tell if it's BOOM or BUST.

[Top image: DS+R's retail complex with rooftop disco and Whole Foods.]

Add New Comment


  • david beaven

    I've been watching this project with interest. Wish them well in it. We have an alternative solution in Florida. I live in a large 55+ condo community in Florida. Lots of facilities and lots of straight people, but there are also a number of gay folks here. We started a social club and gained recognition from the condo board. We have been going 4 years now and are drawing in new gay residents. We have also changed minds and attitudes among our straight neighbors. Check us out at:

  • Lawrence Frost

    I love it all. When will it be built and how do I reserve a living space for me.. The architecture makes me feel young and it is so futuristic.

  • Vinayak2

    I am very interested in this project and would like to see a 24/7 healing center be a part of what is being designed here.  As a doctor of BioEnergetics I would like to be a part of this amazing project.   Thank you..................Dr. Vinayak

    I would also like to know if there will be a section for low income
    senior’s as well as gay seniors living with Aids on SSI?  If so, is there a list that people can sign up for regarding this.  

  • Terry Mardis

    I would love to have a gay oriented community to retire in but also wonder about the practicality of the design and vision.  Glass is hard to heat and cool and two story homes just don't work for an aging population.  Make the housing more desert friendly, make it interesting but economical, keep the idea of a small city and spend the fancy money on a transportation line that could connect people to downtown Palm Springs.  Don't isolate us. We're older but we still want (and need) vibrancy around us to maintain our sense of wonder and exploration.

  • Stephan Uebelhör

    First of all: the idea in general is a good one. But honestly: building this in the desert really is not a good idea at all. So what are they doing here: they are locking older gays away in an area where they will be dependent on cars and other transportation to just go out to a restaurant, theatre, museum, you name it. People do not want to be locked away in a remote spot, particularly not when they get older. As nice as the idea of this resort is: it will eventually become mighty boring just to hang out there and wait for others to come in because getting out is far too troublesome to do it on a regular basis. This is really quite cynical of the architects. 
    On the design side. Well. It does look a bit like the design guys hung out too much on Second Life. Are they sure that such an architecture is a) suited for older gays and - more of a concern - b) suited to be build in the desert? Have they ever been to Dubai? If not I'd strongly advice the designer team do so. It's an Emirate that features a lot of modern architecture, but as professionals they will clearly and quite quickly discover that such approaches are not really that much of a good idea in a desert climate and environment. Sure, South California is not the Emirate Dubai. But it remains a fact: dust and sand from the desert will ruin the designs on the long run. Sand in the air will - at stronger winds that do happen in desert areas - "polish" glas fronts on a daily basis, scratching glas and eating its way through washed concrete surfaces. Not nice. Cleaning such a complex also requires at least twice daily maintenance cycles if not more. The ultimate cost of living will be extremely high due to its location in the desert. Vast amounts of money will be eaten up by maintenance, cleaning, power- and water supply. 
    As I mentioned before: the design looks like right out of Second Life. Now I am a big fan of modern architecture. I love Zaha Hadid's work. But I doubt that such a daring architecture is suited for everyday living. Why do I doubt that: There have been similar attempts earlier in architecture to embed daring new and provocative designs for living areas. Take, for example, the famous Cube Homes in Den Haag, The Netherlands. These buildings are interesting but proved problematic for living. "Where would I put my furniture..." were among the least troublesome questions residents of the Cube Houses had in Den Haag. I would strongly advice the design team to study some of the findings on living in hyper modern surroundings. 

    Finally, I am not entirely condemning the designs and ideas. As I said initially: this is a great idea. But it will need some more work and thought in aspects of location, design, practicality.