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Retirement in a Box: Reforming the Architectural Approach to Senior Housing

By Isabel Fee (B.Arch candidate) | This column examines the postmodern architect’s approach to Senior housing. With her critique, the writer challenges contemporary designers to reconsider their approach to this building typology, offering the college campus as a better precedent for new design strategies.


There’s an old joke that says that architects don’t retire, but instead are driven to work into their final hours. With Greats like Oscar Neimeyer at the drawing board until 104 or Michael Graves rolling, wheel-chair-bound, into the office 12 years after paralysis, it seems there’s certainly some truth to that joke. It also may go to explain why it is that architects have historically failed to properly consider the concept of the Retirement Home.

Architect and theorist Robert Venturi is one of the few architects to comment on the peculiarly blunt trend of retirement home design, making a deliberately non-poignant statement in his 1963 Philadelphia “Guild House.” A callous, extruded square clad in brick to house 91 seniors in cell-like units, the building is formally vague, made identifiable by a “Guild House” sign and tongue-in-cheek TV antenna spire. Successful in exhibiting the lack of nuance in the buildings we design for old people, Guild House fails to help the issue by imagining any sort of alternative (See Fig. 1).

Fee 1

In his book Learning from Las Vegas, Venturi explains the Guild House is purposefully “ugly” and “ordinary;” a “decorated shed” to remain in keeping with all of the other inexpensive buildings erected in our culture from hotels on The Strip to industrial constructions in Philadelphia where Guild House resides. With this concept of the “decorated shed,” Venturi marks the first glaring characteristic of the senior living typology: a lack of insight in exterior expression.

Poured in place concrete with curtain walls, the Guild House façade rises unceremoniously flat and symmetrical from the ground, covered in brick veneer with a select number of punched openings for windows. This is the imagery that characterizes the senior living typology then and now, especially for buildings, like Guild House, commissioned under the US Housing and Urban Development Section 202 for low-income housing. The design leaves something to be desired, not only being what Venturi refers to as “ugly” and “ordinary” but also particularly dismal for the fate of those inside. In cities, the cultural significance of architecture is appraised at least in part by the buildings’ outward appearance; identifying places we are fond of with façades that are creative and playful in form and material. Museums, churches and recreational venues attract our time, resources, and repeated visits and are in most cases thoughtfully considered in their design. When our seniors are only made accessible by boxes surrounded by chain-link fences, it’s no surprise that they remain isolated and marginalized.

With Guild House, Venturi draws attention to this exterior inadequacy, but also the interior one. He draws an interior floor plan of units connected serially along narrow hallways over six stories. Decal numbers label doors not unlike the garish signage on the façade. In those housing projects where occupants are leaving for work and school, active in society throughout the day, this design might be functional, but in senior living communities where residents are restricted by disability and age to their facility, this is inadequate because it contains the extents of their daily experience. Repetitive, cellular Guild House-likearrangements fail to stimulate serendipitous social encounters and other experiences vital to lively, satisfactory communal living.

This is the third characteristic of the failings embodied in Guild House and retirement living as we know it: the inherent separation between the elderly occupants of the complex and the rest of society. With residents disabled to varying degrees and without driving capabilities, leaving home is not a daily part of the experience as it is for other demographics. As a result, the structure and the architecture of the home itself serve as the mediator between residents and the world beyond. Large windows can allow inhabitants to feel connected and provide them with a presence reminding society of their inclusion in the community. (Good.) The antiquated Guild House typology provides windows that accomplish just the opposite; minimal apertures in a buildings that is monolithic and impenetrable. Only one space comes close to providing visual connection to the street below in Guild House. The common room on the sixth floor is adjacent to a large arched window framing the Philadelphia skyline. However, residents will not be seen approaching the window from outside because of a scalloped rail that discourages their occupation of the space (See Fig. 2). This could have otherwise been a pleasant architectural reveal of interior happenings for the rest of the city to become interested in, but was spoiled by a unpleasantly sharp metal rail.

Fee 2

To learn by example, architects might turn away from the Guild House and its relatives to look at another, more extensively studied communal living typology, the college dorm. Also designed for a population requiring access to common services under supervision, the dormitory has more aptly used architecture to push the boundaries of the communal experience, one encompassing not only survival and basic human needs but also intellectual growth, daily self-expression, and an identity within a larger context.

In 2010, Scandinavian firm Lundgaard & Tranberg Architects designed a community for students in Copenhagen, which takes on a sculptural form that culturally communicates the importance of the edifice to the university and to the students. A series of glazed boxes, strung together in a ring provide a novel sculptural form that opens up to a central courtyard. The space is not only intriguing, it provides a collage of different spaces, with rooms arranged next to common green areas, kitchens and study rooms.

Louis Kahn’s India Institute for Management dormitories could be a precedent for interior architecture, in which a dense knitting of public and private spaces creates a micro urban plan. Living units in are arranged in towers, inter-connected with landings, study spaces and classrooms for diverse interactions and opportunities.

James Stirling’s Florey Building at Queen’s College in London shows an instance of how a building can be integrated with and activated by its urban environment. The large U-shaped structure optimizes natural lighting to all spaces as well as views and connections, which facilitate a bilateral relationship with the exterior. Glazing allows one to peek into the building’s common areas and the other way out. There is a large gap between Guild House and a building like this one.

Today, 50 years after Venturi’s rhetorical Guild House statement, retirement homes and long-term care buildings still yearn for a refreshed expression, something less dismal and more alive, with stimulating spaces and integration with the outside world. Venturi brought the issues to light, but failed to take it further than that. Retirement and decline are a fact of life for millions in our country; it’s something we architects should consider, even if its not for us.

Bibliography

Banham, Russ. “Facing the Future – Long Term Care.” The Wall Street Journal. Dow Jones & Company, n.d. Web. 27 Sept. 2015

Fracalossi, Igor. “AD Classics: AD Classics: Florey Building / James Stirling.” ArchDaily. N.p., 01 Sept. 2011. Web. 27 Sept. 2015.

Kroll, Andrew. “AD Classics: Indian Institute of Management / Louis Kahn.” ArchDaily. N.p., 24 Oct. 2010. Web. 27 Sept. 2015.

Lempieri, Jason. “Venturi’s Guild House: 50 Years Of Everyday

Extraordinary Design.” Hidden City Philadelphia RSS. N.p., 29 July 2013. Web. 04 Oct. 2015.

“Tietgen Dormitory / Lundgaard & Tranberg Architects.” ArchDaily. N.p., 06 Feb. 2014. Web. 27 Sept. 2015.

Venturi, Robert, Denise Scott Brown, and Steven Izenour. Learning from Las Vegas: The Forgotten Symbolism of Architectural Form. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 1977. Print.

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