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.
Housing for the elderly in the Netherlands is undergoing substantial change. The costs associated with an ageing population have led to radical structural changes, such as the separation of housing and care and the privatisation of care. The political ambition to replace the welfare state with a ‘participation society’ has accelerated the policy of allowing elderly people to live at home for increasingly longer periods. This new political and economic reality is having an influence on housing for the elderly and provides an opportunity to foreground the phenomenon of ageing as a cultural issue.
This presentation shows that the search for new models is nothing new, but has a rich history. During the course of the twentieth century, charitable organisations, local governments, care institutions, designers and the elderly themselves have pondered the question of housing for the elderly, employing a range of expertise. Designs for housing for the elderly are a tool for researching alternative forms of community and care. They are a means of exploring new partnerships, not only between the different creative disciplines but also between official institutions and informal networks.
The question of housing for the elderly
The current debate on the form and quality of housing for the elderly is not without precedent. This issue is one that has taxed local governments, care institutions and designers throughout the twentieth century. In this respect, the design of housing for the elderly has been closely bound with thinking about pensioners and their place in society. Until the Second World War, care for the elderly was mainly a matter of relief for the poor. Those with no savings or children were dependent upon charity at the end of their working lives. Following the Second World War, care for the elderly became not only a spearhead of the new social policy but also a tool for solving the housing shortage. The government encouraged the construction of retirement homes in order to free up housing for families. Since the 1980s, when the worst of the housing shortage had passed and the combination of accommodation and care became too expensive, institutional responsibility has shifted increasingly to the private sector.
A multifaceted subject
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. The archive contains a cross section of designs from the past hundred years. The variety of material shows that housing for the elderly is strongly linked to political and emancipatory processes. This is apparent, for example, from the changing nature of the institutions that have taken responsibility for providing housing for the elderly: from private charities and housing associations to local councils and the national government. The collection also gives an insight into the influence of diverse areas of expertise on the design of housing for the elderly, such as demographics, healthcare, geriatrics, social work, sociology and disciplines associated with interior design such as colour theory, acoustics and health and safety. There is also a long tradition of gardens attached to housing for the elderly. In the past, they functioned as vegetable gardens and allotments; today they serve to keep pensioners in touch with their biorhythms through contact with nature. The archive shows that the issue of housing for the elderly is a multifaceted subject that can be approached from numerous perspectives.
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?