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Reinventing retirement: Housing and Social Centre in Aarschot by DRDH

Aarschot shows how our greying population can redefine how we build our cities

Europe’s population is greying, as longer life expectancies and reduced birth rates drive up its citizens’ median age. In 2003 that figure stood at 37.7 years old and it is on track to hit 52.3 years old by 2050, with huge economic implications for the decreasing number of working-age Europeans required to support an expanded number of retirees. The change is also certain to impact on the form and character of the continent’s cities. For past generations, abandoning work has been all but synonymous with quitting urban life: from the house in the country to the institutional care home, the topography of ageing remains powerfully defined by its tendency to isolation. However, the expectations of retirement held by Europe’s baby boomers are now challenging that assumption. Having often spent decades in suburbia raising families, many are now coming to appreciate the city as a place of potential freedom and community during their remaining years. Providing the built infrastructure to allow them to fulfil that ambition will prove a key focus of European construction over the coming decades.

‘For past generations, abandoning work has been all but synonymous with quitting urban life’

A project recently completed in the Belgian city of Aarschot suggests that this development could be transformative not only for the elderly but for urban society at large. Won in competition by two young offices working in collaboration – the London-based DRDH and Ghent’s de Vylder Vinck Taillieu – it accommodates 36 private-sale serviced apartments for elderly residents, alongside a social centre. At 5,600m2, this is a building of a size similar to a school or town hall and one that strives for a comparable civic presence. It is helped in that mission by the fact that it occupies a very prominent site. Its main frontage stands at the confluence of two shopping streets and commands a view down a wide boulevard that follows the line once occupied by the medieval city wall. A masterplan drawn up by Robbrecht & Daem Architects in 2003 established the principle that this line be developed as a continuous green circuit, punctuated by significant public buildings. The new building supports this idea through the provision of a series of public spaces that allow passage through the site and up onto the wooded hill that rises behind it. At its summit, the Tour d’Orléans – the one remaining fragment of the wall – overlooks the city. 

Site plan - Click to expand

Site plan - Click to expand

Site plan - Click to expand

The building is reconciled to the domestic scale of its neighbours by its articulation as three linear blocks, distributed in parallel and each surmounted by a double-pitched roof. Two advance to the street while the third holds back, framing a compact public square. A reading of the complex as an urban ensemble rather than a stand-alone building is consolidated by the presence of one further component – a house, which extends the existing terrace and stands gatehouse-like at the square’s entrance. The site is deep and narrow so much of the project’s bulk is hidden from the street. What we are presented with is rather a composition of gables, lent graphic force by terse detailing and the contrast between the colour of the off-white brick walls and zinc-tiled roofs.

A clear organisational diagram is apparent but so too are qualities of improvisation and even surrealism. The plan of the terraced house for example, is ever-so-slightly non-orthogonal, with unsettling consequences for the geometry of its narrow roof. The massing of the main building is also more pliant than it may at first appear. While the parallel blocks that extend to the street both terminate in frontages of three storeys, the one commanding the back of the square is a storey higher. If that variance is easily overlooked it is because the roof of the central block drifts slyly upwards along its length to negotiate the difference. Viewed from a distance, the device registers more forcefully, inviting a strong connection with the slope of the hill. Indeed, it represents a direct response to a rise in ground level between the front and back of the site equivalent to an entire storey.

Plans - Click to expand

Plans - Click to expand

Plans - Click to expand

Another consequence of this condition is that much of the building’s lower level is cut into the hill and given over to car parking. The rest is oriented towards the square and occupied largely by the social centre. Serving Aarschot’s wider elderly population, this facility is focused on a café, which addresses a pétanque court through generously dimensioned windows. Particularly in the summer months, the square therefore promises to escape definition as the forecourt of a residential building and to maintain a more public atmosphere. The question of how ‘public’ it should become will inevitably be a subject of ongoing discussion between residents and management. Should, for example, the weekly market that extends down the adjoining streets be permitted to take up occupation? In its dual nature as a place of congregation and a threshold to a more private realm, the square introduces a theme that the plan reiterates at various scales, most immediately in the form of the small yard, lodged in the far corner of the square, across which the front door to the housing is accessed. No gate separates these territories but the visitor is conscious of crossing into the body of the building, not least because the yard is partly roofed over. An awareness that a different code of behaviour now applies is encouraged by the presence of windows on all sides.

‘The project doesn’t shy away from the cruel truth that old age entails a shrinking of one’s world but it seeks to ameliorate the worst indignities of that process while providing powerful tools to fight it’

On climbing to the apartment levels, we find ourselves at the middle of a plan divided into two misaligned wings. One projects towards the city, the other towards the hill, respectively framing the square and a communal garden set one storey higher. Each wing comprises seven apartments distributed to either side of a corridor, but the architects have taken pains to ameliorate the more institutional associations inherent to that arrangement, by drawing on the image of a series of small houses ranged along a street. Fundamental to that urban impression is their use of unpainted blockwork walls, which meander gently in plan, and full-height windows providing ample daylight from multiple directions. Each apartment has its own ‘facade’ comprising not just a door but also a kitchen window fitted with a pair of shutters. Conceived in collaboration with the artist Willem Cole, these present a white face to the corridor when closed, while revealing a unique combination of colours when open. The device draws association with the shutters of a nearby 16th-century begijnhof (almshouse), and serves as an invitation to residents to enter into a similar spirit of collective habitation. To that same end, the corridor has been intermittently expanded to form shared spaces, each of which is addressed by three apartments. Residents have responded by introducing their own chairs, plants and tables, defining a series of ‘neighbourhoods’ within the larger community.

Section - Click to expand

Section - Click to expand

Section - Click to expand

Providing these shared spaces within the budget necessitated the development of apartment plans that, at a standard 51m2, lie at the minimum end of the permissible area. Yet despite their tight dimensions, these are more than mere institutional hotel suites – each communicates a tangible sense of being an individual or couple’s home. In each, a generous hallway forms another of the building’s sequence of deep entrances, allowing residents to greet visitors without immediately revealing their living spaces. The provision of bathrooms with two doors is also a gesture towards maintaining residents’ dignity. A carer could, for instance, undertake the daily washing of a bed-bound resident without disturbing his wife while she reads in the living room. The units’ credentials as bourgeois apartments in miniature are consolidated by their detailing: floors are in parquet and terrazzo – rather than the vinyl common to so many retirement homes – while the kitchens are bespoke.

Each also has a small external area, either a patio on the communal garden or a balcony, while many enjoy daylighting from three directions, providing a vital sense of diurnal and seasonal rhythms for residents whose mobility may be reduced. The project doesn’t shy away from the cruel truth that old age entails a shrinking of one’s world but it seeks to ameliorate the worst indignities of that process while providing powerful tools to fight it. Between the scale of the apartment and the city, it establishes a finely calibrated sequence of thresholds, each offering residents a choice between retreat and engagement. The old are not always free to define the ‘community’ to which they belong. This humane and optimistic building seeks to return a sense of agency to them.

Housing and Social Centre

Architects : DRDH Architects and de Vylder Vinck Taillieu
Structural/services engineer : Technum-Tractebel Engineering 
Photographs : David Grandorge

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