"Boom" Suggests a New World of Possibilities for Retirement
Retirement communities are an American tradition that dates back at least to 1922, when the Loyal Order of Moose opened Florida's Moosehaven, aka "the City of Contentment," which in its initial form bore less resemblance to Leisure World than it did to an Israeli kibbutz. Fraternal retirees and their spouses helped subsidize their upkeep by working on the community's dairy farm. Even if milking cows isn't your thing, you have to admit that Moosehaven's founders were gerontological visionaries. They imagined older people not as bored couch potatoes but as vigorous and energetic folks who enjoyed the sense of accomplishment and reveled in physical activity as a way to stay youthful.
I was reminded of Moosehaven when I read recently about BOOM, a proposed California retirement community near Palm Springs that is scheduled to break ground in 2012, and which recently has been getting a lot of attention in architecture publications and at the Huffington Post and the Los Angeles Times. The project was spawned when a client showed a 40-acre site to Matthias Hollwich, the co-founder of New York-based architectural firm HWKN, who's been investigating how architectural design could be used to optimize older people's lives. Originally, BOOM was envisioned as a magnet for urbane, design-conscious gay and lesbian retirees, but along the way, the concept has expanded to appeal to anybody who craves the chance to get away from polyhedrons of any sort whenever possible.
"There needs to be a fresh start with retirement communities," Hollwich told me in a phone interview. "We've got to start from scratch and embed our vision for how we want our lives to be. I really believe that there are no 'elderly.' There is just me and you, in the later time of our life, with our diversity of interests and activities."
Beyond that, Hollwich thinks that existing senior housing is, well, a bit too dull and gray for a still-vibrant, imaginative, energetic boomer generation. "We want to fight age discrimination with the beauty of design," he says.
To that end, BOOM's eight neighborhoods in Rancho Mirage, each designed by a different avant-garde architectural firm, are what I would call innovative or daringly unconventional, except that those words are a bit too tame for a project whose preliminary designs include asymmetric curved houses that ripple like concrete waves and others that are glass boxes implanted on an angle, like the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Imagine, if you will, a cross between Abu Dhabi and the futuristic city in Fritz Lang's 1927 sci-fi classic Metropolis, but without the robots. It might sound a little wacky to some, but there's an ingenious logic and functionality behind it all.
Case in point is HWKN's concept for BOOM CAMP, a neighborhood in which apartments are joined in an irregular oval with a running/walking path with exercise stations on the roof, and a climbing wall on the exterior. Naturally lit living spaces open into a spacious, landscaped courtyard/common area in the center. It's a living environment suited for older people who are fitness-oriented and revel in spending much of their time in the fresh air and sunshine. It's also intended to encourage neighbors to interact and socialize continually throughout the day, from early morning walks to evening cocktails and dinner parties.
It sounds idyllic, but Hollwich also is realistic about the health issues that retirees at some point may have to deal with. He envisions integrating medical facilities, assisted living and nursing beds right in the midst of the community so that residents who need help can get it without being separated from their peers. When he calls it "the most dangerous nursing home on the planet," that's intended as a positive. "Those facilities are often so sad and institutional-looking and isolated," he says. "We want to reverse that association. It's not going to be a depressing place. It's going to have an uplifting, light feeling. And the key is that it's going to be super-integrated. You're not going to be shipped away from your community because you have health challenges. You'll be able to see your friends all the time."
Another aspect of BOOM is that it will be, in part, user-designed. The project's website solicits ideas for features from prospective residents. The list already includes a dog park, solar-powered charging stations for plug-in hybrids and electric cars, and plant-covered walls to help cool the structures.
From Fastcodesign.com, here's an interview with Hollwich about how architecture can help us age more gracefully, and an article from the design website Evolvo on new architectural and technological concepts for retirement homes.
** All photos courtesy of: HWKN
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