Village People

There seems to be a commonly held view that anyone aged over 50 requires just three essentials from group retirement housing: muzak, vertical blinds and mushy, highly processed, food. And architects so often complicate matters with their acquiescence to developers’ demands by delivering a convoluted pile of bricks for the least amount of small change.

From a starting point more befitting a 4-star hotel, eco-retreat or ski-lodge, rather than retirement village, Melbourne architect John Demos provides an intriguing alternative interpretation of retirement housing. As the Baby Boomer generation stampedes towards seniors housing and aged care, what’s really in store for a group with lofty lifestyle expectations? Huge disappointment if the standard issue accommodation is any guide. When someone designs a compelling alternative, it’s truly worth a site inspection.

Retirement housing is rarely, if ever, cool, engaging or, heavens above, sexy! Drive south of Melbourne towards Geelong and a huge freeway billboard urges us to think of Taylor’s Lakes as ‘Sexy’ – as if it were a resort playground that blended Bora Bora with Casa Versace. Hopping aboard the mortgage conveyor belt is about as sexy and saucy as cold plum pudding with a Corinthian front door. Retirement housing is essentially a stew of ye olde world display home typology. But comfortable? Perhaps, but only for those so conditioned. Is this energy inefficient model the solution to the looming crisis in aged care and retirement housing?

Those who have revelled in this ‘burger with the lot’ style housing that has pushed the housing allotment, rather than the design envelope, might not care much about subsequent housing options, but the reality is unappealing, if not depressing.

No surprise then that the result is either a megaplex of ritzy reception and not so grand living/sleeping rooms or a forlorn, bargain basement, refuge. The elderly, it appears, are doomed for something much less than they deserve. Old age can at least be dignified, comfortable and connected rather than estranged by weaving corridors and boxy rooms.

Demos’ design for the Pascoe Vale Retirement Village 12 kms. to Melbourne’s north, is the revelation of uncommonly common-sense. His concept for residents is gourmet accommodation at a takeaway price. At around just $1,350 sq.m. complete, this project has nothing in common with the standard bog brick construction. Featuring a far more open frame and glazing program, the architecture is most successful at filtering and layering space. The use of lightweight waffle ground slab, timber wall and roof framing framing and exposed laminated Australian cypress columns and beams achieves an especially open, light-filled and layered structure.

Architecture is as much art by association as satisfying the necessities of comfortable, secure shelter. It can also create ethereal space and tap into the human psyche’s desire for well being on multiple planes. Stroll through down the central ‘avenue’ of this project and be reminded of a lightweight, light-filled forest canopy – of tree like structure and an umbrella canopy.

Demos tackles aged care and retirement housing with energy and invention. He brings to mind the passion and purpose that Jamie Oliver brings to food. And architecture can be just like that using inexpensive, quality ingredients in imaginative ways rather supplying cardboard stodge and a collective washing of hands of responsibility. Oliver’s attempts to rewrite the nutritional standards for British schools is proving irresistible, if difficult, such is the entrenched culture towards a national diet of highly processed and fatty excrescence.

Aged care housing is no less urgent an issue. Our elderly deserve emotionally and physically healthy buildings and places such as Pascoe Vale do more than hint at the possibilities to raise the bar. Perceptions are often built around misguided expectations and this can easily lead to the perpetuation of a folklore that lattice and lamingtons are good enough.

Good design reminds us what we have been missing out on. It can, and should, motivate change and to see that the bland pulp served up just isn’t creatively, or nutritionally, good enough. We can, and must, do better. If developers and governments can’t see beyond the stereotype then it’s up to architects to step up and do so.

‘If your starting point is one of anxiety and fear rather than something that’s fascinating and engaging, you will end up with a very different result,” Demos says. “Well considered buildings are cheaper to operate,” argues Demos who says the principles of this type of construction could see it easily adapted for a wide range of accommodation needs as diverse as barracks to resort. There’s no reason that with a few adjustments this type of accommodation wouldn’t work just as effectively anywhere else in Australia.” So confident is he of the modular, kit-of-parts, build that he says that it would require little to pack the project in shipping containers and a simple instruction book for assembly.

If this all sounds very IKEA, he makes no apologies for the idea that mass production and pre-fabrication provides a cost effective construction technique without design compromise compared to the stone age results of cookie-cutter brick veneer. “There is a high level of modular repetition,” says Demos. “Perfect one and repeat it 70 times.” This doesn’t mean units are palatial, but neither are they cramped and depressing. Neither does it mean boring.

Unlike the early modernists who treated a building’s skin as part of a design dogma, this newer humanistic modernism explores the nuances of permeable skin to permit a great flexibility of daylight, breeze and aspect. In this instance a fretwork of verandas, balconies and awnings contribute a functional ‘fraying’ of zones between garden and living spaces. Clerestory volumes with operable louvers help facilitate efficient passive ventilation. Being relatively narrow-bodied in plan, daylight penetration and natural ventilation is that much more effortless than the commonly congested floor-plan obstructed by passageways and endless nooks and crannies.

“This humanistic component,” says Demos, “ provides a sense of well-being, that cost considerations doesn’t provide for residents and the life of a project. You know from the moment you enter certain facilities if they have been thoughtfully designed. We wanted to create an instinctive and resonant appeal that immediately answered the first question that arose: ‘Could I live here?’”

While regulations for aged housing are often cited as an excuse or reason for their low aim and quaint domesticity, Demos argues it is an unacceptable premise for design. “The last of my concerns was regulations. These are the sort of issues that ‘chop-up’ and confuse a design when overly emphasised. Regulations should sit in the background not the foreground. Regulations will never create a wonderful environment for people. There’s a subtle shift in understanding how people can continue their lives in a less strait-jacketed environment,” affirms Demos.

The more common experience of mainstream retirement and aged care housing is of tiny, cramped rooms with limited aspect and daylight. A visit to many retirement villages is like a sequence from the computer game Doom where one passageway appears identical to the next – all leading to a sense of claustrophobia and anxiety.

Bedrooms too are inevitably tiny at around the regulation 12 sq.m which is small, if not smaller, than an average hotel room. At Pascoe Vale the average room is 15 sq.m. with an en-suite, alcove which can be sectioned off and a kitchenette. Balconies on the first and ground floor and garden terrace connected by sliding full height glazing creates a flow-through feel. “It was more important to me that the building worked as it should; that daylight entered and suffused the volumes, that it relates to the landscape and that residents relate to each another.”

Despite its dimensions and potentially challenging sets of stairs numerous lift-banks aid the process of vertical circulation. The double level, wide, light-filled ‘street’ has double height glazing at each end in addition to clerestory glazing provides Laminated timber framework provides the structural spine and reinforces the sense of natural materials used as a direct, honest expression. Radiating trusses rise towards the clerestories and, on the north elevation, where balconies overlook the bowling green a fine butterfly roofed pavilion provides an elegant, transitional zone for barbeques, relaxation and camaraderie.

“Baby boomers,” advises Demos, “are going to be a difficult group to accommodate because they’re more critical than previous generations. This shouldn’t scare anyone. Places such as this are really like living in a hotel where you have a high degree of independence and all of the services. The elderly are no different to anyone else except in this instance it happens to be designed for an older age group. It’s much less a type than an environment.”

There is little reverence or regard for the elderly in Western society and this view of them as burden, rather than resource, is reflected in much of our housing. Pascoe Vale represents another, altogether different, attitude with its authenticity and tranquillity.

Energised spaces, layered daylight and joyful air throw down a compelling challenge to the formula beige of crocheted rugs and Green-sleeves on-a-loop.

Peter Hyatt Copyright


Journalism provides an entrée for many of my interviews and assignments.

I’ve interviewed some of the world’s most interesting and influential architects. I love meeting and working with this group. They are inevitably passionate and driven by strong ideas. There is an impetus about everything some people do and hopefully that carries through in my essays. The selected essays are mainly current. Some are simply favourites.