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Brion Basha, Marvi Basha, Patrick Ebner, Joost Meuwissen, Special recognition winning entry to the New Urban Models for Aging competition, 2011. A view of the courtyard at Aspern Lake City, Vienna.
The building block ground floor plan with services and facilities at Aspern Lake City, Vienna.
The building block second floor plan, showing the distribution of the various categories of homes for the elderly.
Town planning organizational diagram, showing the small houses for skilled nursing at the centre of the courtyard of the building block.
Section of the small houses for skilled nursing in the courtyard.
A view of the courtyard from a gallery of the building block.
View of a cutting-through pathway through the whole of the block.
The building block within the Aspern Lake City scheme.
A similarly handled building block at Barcelona.
A similarly handled building block at Berlin.
A similarly handled building block at Los Angeles.

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Posted 31 Oct 2011

New Urban Models for Aging

Joost Meuwissen

If the context, in which an architectural or town planning design is carried out, is conceived of as being flexible – both real, simulated and theoretically abstracted as an organizational diagram – with no established facts, then such a design may become a research. The reason is that a design may always shift between the real, the numerous representations of the real, and the real desires that are present. A specific demand in the brief may thus lead to a specific design solution, which otherwise would not have come into existence. Whether such a design solution contributes to architecture or not, is not a coincidence but should be assessed by the design itself, i.e. by its own architecture or by its genuine approach towards architecture. This would be completely independent of the topical demand from the brief that caused it to be. Seen in such a way, an architectural or town planning scheme may contribute to architecture by formulating and thoroughly investigating falsifiable hypotheses from topical assignments seemingly almost solely retrospectively, by means of criticism or analytical evaluation. In architecture, an invention is the effectuation of a design, not the result of a design process.
Accordingly, for instance, the demand for a better spatial and social organization of homes for the elderly may unexpectedly lead to a new town planning conception of parceling, in which parceling is seen as a differentiation rather than as a division or distribution of lots. That way, to parcel might generally become more easily formalized, and this in turn may contribute to a better protection of properties at neighborhoods all over the world.

A decentralized institution.
The 2011 New Urban Models for Aging competition was held by the AIA American Institute of Architects and its Leading Age research center for homes for the elderly. In order to provide old people with a social life as rich and intergenerational as possible, the brief asked for a decentralized institution by dispersing its parts over the city instead of centralizing it into one single building complex. As for the organization of such a dispersal, the brief distinguished only between independent, assisted and nursed living. For integration purposes, ‘independent’ and ‘assisted’ living would be better off quite anonymously, without a special architectural or zoning designation within the city, whereas on the contrary ‘skilled nursing’ should be highly recognizable and preferably be organized in ‘small houses’ with their site and architectural character strongly expressed. The design problem to be solved would be to smoothly integrate such architecturally high profiled ‘small houses’ into a friendly urban environment, without stigmatizing them.
At first sight, it seemed that the brief did not pay much attention to the way an old people´s home is organized as a social enterprise or service institution. It rather focused directly on the actual appearance of the diffusion or the way various sorts of dwellings are dispersed over the city or neighborhood or urban block. It was not made clear who organizes it, and in what entrepreneurial way. Since homes for the elderly in the United States are mostly private initiatives or enterprises, the brief demanded for a general town planning and architectural solution, which could be applied to any effort to accommodate the aging. In the brief, the categorizations – independent, assisted, nursed – were not formulated according to an inner enterprise accountancy but to the outer natural process of people aging, which simply happens to all of us. As the brief said, the categorical distinction of independent, assisted and nursed living was explicitly meant to neutrally distinguish between different ‘levels of care’. Still a certain tendency could be noted, since residents, as the brief says, “often progress from Independent to Assisted Living and finally to Skilled Nursing,” not the other way round. The planning was about people not space. The town planning, and architecture for that matter, would not be space-orientated but object-orientated. Space should in no way be a hindrance.
Since the competition brief left the choice of a location for the project free, a generic urban location would best suit a general, worldwide use of its results, both in theory and practice.
Therefore an urban environment of building blocks was chosen which is more or less the same all over the world.

Building block.
A building block may either be conceived of as a big building with an inner court for public or private use or it may consist of singular, more or less parceled houses in rows that align themselves with the streets that surround the block. As for the public openness and financial sustainability of high quality arrangements in the inner courts, the question of to parcel or not to parcel was highly discussed during the design process, on the basis of the arguments that were brought forward in view of the city of Vienna, Austria, by Daniel Glaser in his Free Spaces (2011). Vienna has a tradition of both public inner courts (Höfe) and
privately parceled inner courts (Blockrandbebauungen). It makes the city of Vienna into an important laboratory for town planning.
Recently, since communities such as Vienna do not have the financial means to provide for a rich public environment anymore, a town planning that would allow for private initiatives to flourish within the public sphere might be welcome. In Daniel Glaser´s view, this might be best achieved by parceling.[1]

To parcel.
In town planning all over the world, especially in fast growing metropolises, to parcel or not to parcel is a main question that concerns the formalization of the properties of the people, the legalized perpetuation of their wealth, and the shared possibility of private, and therefore public, economic growth.[2]
A main concern during the design process was to avoid that the strong architectural pronouncement of the ‘small houses’ for skilled nursing would turn into a panoptical, surveillance-like relationship to their surroundings. This was achieved by what may be called a sublimated or ‘suspended’ parceling of a principally not-parceled building block in the new development of Aspern Lake City, Vienna, where the design was situated. The ‘small houses’ for skilled nursing are simply in the middle of the court, so as to pose the problem to be solved. Therefore, parceling is used as a reference. It consists of three subsystems: the load-bearing structural divisions of the dwellings along the building block, the cutting-through of pathways through the block on the scale of the whole of the block, and the condensation of the parceled garden towards the middle of the court, to where the ‘small houses’ are. The court garden gets more and more dense towards the middle of the court. It is important that the bigger short-cut pathways, which open the block, do not form a part of a bigger circulation system of the whole of the urban area surrounding the block. They essentially stay a system of parceling that is confined within the block. This makes it possible to indeed generally apply this research result all over the world, be it in Berlin, Barcelona or Los Angeles. Following the words of Patrik Schumacher the scheme thus might be called an “amplified articulation via mutual accentuation between sub-systems.”



[1]  Daniel Glaser, Freie Räume. Strategien für den Wiener Block (Vienna: Sonderzahl Verlagsgesellschaft, 2011), 13-14.

[2]  Hernando de Soto, ‘Egypt's Economic Apartheid. More than 90% of Egyptians hold their property without legal title. No wonder they can't build wealth and have lost hope’, The Wall Street Journal, February 3, 2011.


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