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Credit: Noah Kalina

By his own definition, German architect Matthias Hollwich is old. He certainly doesn’t look it. Tall, and muscularly filling out a black T-shirt, he’s got the kind of youthful energy you see in athletes and workaholics. There’s no gray in his goatee, and while his hair is cropped short, he’s still got most of it. So I’m taken aback when he answers a query about his age.

“I’m 50 percent of my life,” Hollwich states with a glint in his eye. “The average German reaches 78, and I’m 39. I have passed 50 percent of my life expectancy, so I’m officially old.”

Standing on the threshold of middle age, Hollwich is on a mission to change how society as a whole—and, specifically, the architecture profession—thinks about aging. It begins with a counterintuitive position. In a culture obsessed with preserving the luster of youth for as long as possible, with a whole host of methods from the surface to the structure (Botox, little blue pills, artificial organs), Hollwich believes we ought to call ourselves old earlier. Doing so will change the way we look at older people and, eventually, how people will look at us.

By acknowledging the aging process and integrating it into daily life, he argues, we’re better able to prepare for the inevitable end-of-life changes that, at present, we keep grimly hidden away in assisted-living facilities and nursing homes.

Hollwich has dubbed this critical perspective “New Aging,” and for the past three years, he’s conducted workshops, seminars, and research studios on the subject—first at the Bauhaus Dessau Foundation in Germany and then at the University of Pennsylvania, where he teaches. (He routinely takes his students into nursing homes to see existing conditions firsthand.)

This past fall, he organized “New Aging: An International Conference on Aging and Architecture” at Penn’s School of Design. The conference brought together a diverse group of designers, academics, and scientists, from architect and gerontologist Victor Regnier to the controversial British antiaging researcher Aubrey de Grey.

But Hollwich is far from a cloistered academic. As a principal of the New York–based practice Hollwich Kushner (or HWKN) and co-founder of the architectural social networking site Architizer, he’s in a position to pursue and promote design projects that rethink what it means to be old. However, his qualifications don’t explain why a decidedly hip architect (with an Office for Metropolitan Architecture pedigree, no less) would choose to align himself with the Golden Girls set.

“My grandmother died next to me in a room. We were living for years in the same house, and my mother was her caretaker,” Hollwich recalls. “I was the last one to talk to her. I felt it when she died. It was not scary. It was very beautiful that I was so close to her.” He was living with his family in Munich at the time.

“For her,” he continues, “she was looking forward to it [her death], because she didn’t feel so well anymore. And she felt she could hand over her life now to the next generation. But there was, I think, a moment of confrontation with death. Denial is the worst thing we can do. Most people deny that they’re going to die or they’re going to get frail or that they’re going to need to move into a nursing home … or even that they have to give up the car, the driving license.”

Multigenerational living and a clear-eyed reckoning with the limits of independence are at the root of Hollwich’s New Aging. Together, they suggest increasingly popular architectural and urban planning solutions such as walkable communities in urban areas, with close-at-hand amenities such as grocery stores, pharmacies, and public transit, or housing developments that entice active sexagenarians with rock walls and shopping malls, but also incorporate what Hollwich calls “stealth care”—home nursing services that operate as invisibly as infrastructure—to serve the elderly. “By bringing aging closer to home, you make it less scary,” he says.

Currently, HWKN is at work on just this kind of development in Palm Springs, Calif. It’s geared to the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) community, a group usually invisible in discussions of aging, even though it represents an increasing elderly population.

Called Boom, the project is banking on the combination of high design and a wide range of facilities—spa, boutique hotel, medical care, active but wheelchair-accessible landscapes—as a signature draw. HWKN has enlisted 10 firms on the project, including such notables as J. Mayer H., Diller Scofidio + Renfro, and Lot-Ek. Bruce Mau Design is creating Boom’s visual identity.

Still, it’s hard to imagine a vibrant 65-year-old, fit enough to go shopping and play tennis daily, who would want to move to a community full of old people. And I say as much to Hollwich.

“If we don’t like how we’re … going to live when we’re 80, then we need to re-engineer what will happen,” he replies. He envisions older people living in both stand-alone developments and facilities mixed into the existing urban fabric: In Geropolis, a study he worked on in Dessau, the team developed a series of community typologies for aging, some modeled on college campuses and shopping malls, and with spiritual retreats and wellness hubs. “These spaces are not just for the elderly,” he maintains. “I mean, when you look at what’s good for our pioneers, it’s good for everyone: mixed-use buildings, mixed generations, reduced need for mobility and transportation.”

Pioneers? I ask, and he says of the boomers and Gen-Xers who will redefine old age, “I call them pioneers because they [will] go to a point in life that nobody has ever been.”