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Meet The Architect Who Is Radically Rethinking How We Age

Matthias Hollwich wants to upend the way we think about getting old, starting with the design of our homes and cities.

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Matthias Hollwich, the 44-year-old partner of the New York-based architecture firm HWKN, considers himself old. Technically, he's right.

The architect—whose projects with partner Marc Kushner include branding for Uniqlo, the Fire Island Pines Pavilion, and the MoMA PS1 2012 young architect award-winning installation Wendy—has passed the halfway mark of the life expectancy for an average German male.

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That was even true seven years ago when, at 38 and finally feeling as though he was growing older, he became curious about life expectancy and how society cares for its older generation. What he found out visiting older people in nursing homes and retirement communities, and talking to families who had to make those tough decisions, wasn't comforting. Since then, he's become an outspoken advocate for architecture and planning that's better tailored to the natural process of aging, and how a space—or even a city—could better accommodate those transitions.

In his new book, New Aging, he offers a strategic guide to designing your life so that you're happy and comfortable to the very end. The idea, Hollwich says, is to first mobilize people at the individual level to think about better ways to live life as an older member of society. Innovation from architects, product designers, and urban planners will then follow. As with other instances of inclusive design—a concept that is recently gaining traction with companies as big as Ford and Microsoft—the thinking goes that if something is designed well enough to be helpful to older people, it will most likely benefit everyone.

Hollwich and his firm HWKN are already exploring those possibilities on an architectural level, most recently in a prototype of a multigenerational living facility called Skyler. Inspired by the natural progression of growing older, the tower would accommodate people through every stage of life, interweaving spaces devoted to, say, education with those designed for older people who need instant access to health care professionals to create a more diverse, socially engaging community for all ages.

I talked to Hollwich about the challenging popular perceptions about getting older, how architecture can erase the stigma of the "elderly," and the responsibilities that designers and architects have to improving life at any age.

Co.Design: Tell me about how you arrived at the concept behind New Aging.
Matthias Hollwich: "When I turned 38 years old, which is now almost seven years ago, I looked into what my life expectancy was and what happens as we’re getting older. I realized that at 38, as an average male German, I had surpassed 50% of my life expectancy. And looking into the future, I realized there was nothing really interesting that enables us as we’re getting older—which includes retirement facilities, assisted living facilities, and nursing homes. With that in mind, as an architect, I started to research further and look into possibilities of designing something different. At the time I was also teaching at University of Pennsylvania, and I started a research seminar and design studios on aging. That was sort of the kick-off to the whole New Aging journey."

In your book you suggest "taking aging for a test drive"—essentially talking to the oldest person you know about what to expect from getting older. What kind of research did you do to inform New Aging?
"It all started early in my life when I was growing up in Munich. My grandmother was living with us, and she had a heart attack and was partially disabled for the last three years of her life, so my mother was taking care of her. She passed away in the room next to me and I was the last person to talk to her. That was kind of the beginning of seeing the challenges [of aging], but also seeing the beauty of going through the challenges with the person. We as a family were really there for her and supporting her.

"Later on in my research, I went through many, many nursing homes and assisted living facilities and talked to many people and it was always the same stories. The story from the family is that they’re almost sort of embarrassed that they had to send their older members to places that maybe from the outside looked great, but they realized that the family member in the nursing home degrades rapidly when they’re in these places. And people who are there are also of course realizing they are in an end stage of life and they’re not part of society anymore, and this is a place that is used to store them away and wait basically for death.

"And then you look into other studies in countries where the family support system is still intact, or has just been partially altered, and people can live in the places where they were born all of their life. They’re happy until the very end, and it’s a very strong sort of community component to it that makes all the difference. That inspired me to look at aging, not just as an architect to design better nursing homes and assisted living facilities, which is also important, but actually to revisit the whole aspect of aging from the get-go."

What are some of the major problems with retirement communities, assisted living facilities, and nursing homes as they are commonly designed today?
"I think the biggest flaw is that it’s age segregation. You take all of the people who are above 75, 85, or 95, depending on what type of environment it is, and put them into one place. And then you’re just surrounded by old people, people who have social and physical challenges, and you’re not around the vibrancy of a multi-age environment, which is something that we experience all life long. I think that is something that society really has to rethink.

"There are beautiful opportunities now when you think about technology and services and how they are being given to people. It’s not really about aggregation and efficiency like the Walmart system where you have to build a big warehouse and that’s the only way people get their goods efficiently. Now people can get their goods delivered at home or go to a neighborhood store, and it’s equally affordable because they have a new logistical system.

"I think that’s possible also for health care. Health care slowly but surely can be provided much more individually, much more on demand, and in different situations and smaller sizes. When you look at statistics, 50% of all people in a nursing home are there because of social deficits, not physical deficits. So that means when we can actually solve the social challenges within our built environment, that will already have taken away half of the population in nursing homes and will make people's lives better."

When you say social deficit, what do you mean?
"The main social deficit that happens is when a spouse passes away. And that means that your common partner you rely on for many tasks is suddenly gone. And when a family member has to find a solution for the surviving older person to manage their lives, the assisted living facility or nursing home comes to mind really quickly. But when we are socially integrated not just with our partner, but also with friends, also with family, also with neighbors—then the loss of the partner is less challenging for the living condition and can be compensated for with other social networks around us.

"And there are also different living possibilities. Right now when you’re living with a partner, there’s the master bedroom and maybe a children’s bedroom. But if there are two master bedrooms, you can live together with a friend and have a strategic alliance with a partner where you’re helping each other and it doesn’t have to be an emotional connection."

What in your mind is an architect’s role for creating better social experiences?
"This is actually something that our firm is really passionate about. If you were to ask me what is the key aspect that we do in our firm, we are interested in igniting the social bond between people in every sort of project that we do. I really miss that from many architects throughout the world today. Because people do live or engage with architecture 95% of the time, so we really have these environments that people use every day. If we do them right, then people can make friends by just walking down the street. Or they can have a great idea for a new business when they’re in a space that inspires them and with people that maybe think a little differently.

"I really see that as a huge responsibility in architecture. There are couple of firms that are really interesting right now who are prototyping a whole new way to engage people with each other. One of them is WeWork, which is creating something right now called WeLive. The apartments might be small in some locations, but they’re really thinking about how to connect people on different levels to create a very strong sense of community. I believe that every developer and client now really has to keep that in mind. And as architects we have to find different ways. It’s important that we don’t force people to meet or be social, but we can design places where people can connect with each other.

"I find it fascinating that I’ve not met my neighbors in my apartment building and I’ve been there for three months. And it’s just because it’s wrongly designed. For me to knock on the door, it’s a threshold that’s uncomfortable. But for me to run into them a couple of times in a month, I would definitely start to strike up a conversation. Those are the types of things that we have to take seriously as architects, and we have to see them as a responsibility that we have back to our society."

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What should designers—not just architects, but industrial designers, urban planners, etc.—be doing to help this effort?
"To me, the book is a strategic tool to create awareness in society that you can make a difference for yourself—but also when people are informed about how much better life can be, they ask for better buildings, they ask for better cities and services. It’s almost creating a revolution within society by initiating a revolution in everyone individually so they can request a better life and they can prototype their own life. That will teach the industry and everyone providing these services that you cannot just go ahead with the status quo. Uou have to innovate to meet the demands of society.

"There are some beautiful trends that we're already seeing. In industrial design for example, the most popular car for the older generation is the Mini Cooper. And you would wonder why—it’s a hip car, it’s very much driven by youth culture, it’s very pop-y. But it has huge doors that allow you to get into the cars really easily, and that’s a huge advantage for mobility and for older people.

"Or when you think of Uber and how amazing is that now that we have almost a private driver for a quite reasonable cost, so that we don’t depend anymore on having our own driver’s license and our own car. Because at some point when we’re getting older we might lose our license, and there is actually a statistic that shows that age depression and even suicide spikes up at the moment that people have to surrender their driver’s license. So by having a company like Uber already offering an idea of transportation, people can hopefully give up their driver’s license much earlier so that nobody takes it away from them, so the transition is more natural and doesn’t create these kinds of challenges.

"I’m a big fan of services like Uber and Blue Apron because they make my life easier—if you design for older people you can come up with ideas that are good for everyone."

Do you think that these services, or thinking about design and architecture in this way, can serve to erase the stigma around aging?
"The stigma is a huge thing that needs to be tackled. In the book, we worked really, really hard to invite people to think about aging without looking at the book and getting scared and not actually opening it. It’s playful and fun and digestible so it doesn’t feel like a burden to read. It’s an open invitation to read.

"I think it’s the same thing for products. Things shouldn’t be branded just for older people. They need to be branded for all of us, and inspired by older people. When we talk about buildings that are designed with aging in mind, they need to be extremely progressive, because you also want to be fighting age discrimination through excellent design. It’s not that we have to design for this group of elderly people—and everyone has an image in mind [of the elderly] that 95% of the time is not true—we just have to design for older people with all of their differences and experiences.

"That means we have to design something that is for all different user groups but is also progressive in its nature because older people are actually pioneers. If you think about it, people getting older get to a point in life where nobody in life has ever been, so it’s a very pioneering effort to go through, and I think the building should reflect that."

The video that introduced Skyler explains how the building takes the challenges of aging and turns them into opportunities. Could you take me through what some of those opportunities would be?
"When you’re getting older—and that starts really when you’re born—you go through traditional phases. The first one is education when you are getting ready for adult life. Then there is retirement when you leave the classic productive life. And then we go into a moment where you might need more support physically and socially. So what Skyler has done is we have an amenity program that is calibrated for these different stages, where you can have the young people and older people mixed together and help each other and educate each other. For the older people, maybe it would be an access to technology and understanding how technology works. For the younger people, it might be learning how the world operates and allowing them to tap into [older people’s] existing networks.

"Then there's the moment of retirement. I believe we have eliminated the concept of retirement, so maybe it’s just a shift in gear and responsibility where Skyler provides spaces where people can start up their own business. They have a business center within the building so that they don’t have to travel to another building and figure out transportation needs.

"For the third transition, there is a spiritual component, which is also very important for our society because it is tough to prepare for the end of life. Everyone should have a space to reflect and to think about what is coming. Skyler has a spiritual center at the top, and a health care facility . . . integrated throughout the building."

Is the building just a speculative project or will it actually be built?
"We started it totally speculative to show the world what the future can be. But we got a lot of interest in applying some of the thinking behind it, and we even have interest from people who want to build Skyler the way that it is designed. We’ll be very curious what the future of the building will be."

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