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In the spring of 2015 architecture-history and art-history students from the VU University in Amsterdam conducted research in the archives of Het Nieuwe Instituut into the development of housing for the elderly in the Netherlands. This has resulted in a presentation of fifty designs for new housing for the elderly. For Het Nieuwe Instituut, this project affords an opportunity to look at housing for the elderly as a broader cultural issue, viewed from the perspectives of history and heritage.

The archive as building block for the future

From the extensive archive materials, the VU students selected several characteristic projects for further research. The presentation ‘Long May We Live!’ sketches the development on housing for the elderly using fifty designs within five categories. Each of the designs is emblematic of a particular period or illustrates a change in thinking about the elderly in society and the relationship between accommodation and care. They show that throughout history there have been constant typologies for housing the elderly, but that the context within which they function has constantly changed.

The archives of Het Nieuwe Instituut contain a broad range of designs for housing for the elderly from the past hundred years. The palette of housing for the elderly is very broad and shows that ‘the elderly’ does not exist as a clearly defined group but is just as varied as younger generations, and comprises numerous subcategories. The combination of accommodation and care takes many different forms, of which demand-driven and supply-driven care are the extremes on the spectrum. The selected designs demonstrate that there is a dualistic vision at the basis of designs for the elderly: on the one hand impassioned, empathetic and idealistic, and on the other rational, dispassionate and sometimes calculating. The constant element is thinking about the elderly as a distinct group, far removed from other generations and not connected to society as a whole. Although the post-war welfare state has benefitted the elderly in many respects, it has also probably promoted rather than mitigated the elderly’s alienation from society.

The future demands a different approach. Responsibility for the quality of life is shifting from government to the private sector. This change calls for new partnerships between institutions and informal networks. Designs for housing for the elderly can explore these new connections and translate them into architectural and urban planning designs. The shift of housing for the elderly to the private sector also affords an opportunity to reduce the difference close the gap between young and old and vital and infirm. Familiarity with old age and its associated deficiencies can give a meaningful direction to a question that will affect us all: how do we want to grow old and in what circumstances?