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Housing for the Elderly by Aires Mateus, Alcácer do Sal, Portugal

The blinding whiteness and sharp-edged modernity of Aires Mateus’ Housing for the Elderly stands proud against the rustic charm of Alcácer do Sal. Photography by Fernando Guerra

We are not as young as we used to be, on average, and we are getting older still. Medical advances and increasingly cautious lifestyles mean that we all live longer and in better health than previous generations. Life expectancies have improved dramatically - in Portugal by some eight years since the 1980s, and over half of babies born today in Europe will live to 100 or more. These demographic transformations are placing unprecedented demands on society, on the economy, and on the supply of housing. Aspirations are rising too. Conventionally limited to a choice of options depending on needs and resources, between sheltered accommodation, retirement bungalows, or an old people’s home, the existing housing model for this sector feels outdated.

Designed by architects Aires Mateus for charity Santa Casa da Misericórdia, a Portuguese national organisation with a 500-year history, this residence for older people with moderate care needs in the rural town of Alcácer do Sal, 95 km south of Lisbon, draws on the well-established Christian practice of good works, but in the context of the emerging ‘grey generation’.

The proportional rise of the elderly has been accompanied by other profound social changes. Many of us are no longer willing (or able) to care for our ageing relatives, even in the countryside where the integrity of the extended family is less under siege than in urban areas. Traditional rural communities lose many in their twenties to the bright lights of the city, only to be replaced by weekenders and tourists who see village life as a diversion. The agenda for social intervention is thus not just about providing housing, but also about fostering mutual support and respect at the scale of the wider neighbourhood.

Appreciating the role of community networks is a vital precondition to producing satisfactory housing for this age group, especially for those who are socially vulnerable as well as old. Effective local connections, and access to services and transport, are vital to keeping isolation at bay. Many older people experience loneliness as a matter of routine, often feeling confined at home. If housing can reassert their role in society, and respect their wish to participate in everyday activities, it will contribute to their wellbeing.

This building is nothing if not assertive. Its blinding whiteness and sharp-edged modernity stand proud against the rustic charm of Alcácer do Sal, a medieval settlement topped by a Moorish castle built on the ruins of sixth-century Roman fortifications. A bend in the Sado River pins the town down between south-facing hills to the north and east, and flat plains to the south. Less than 10 minutes’ walk up the rise, Aires Mateus has strung 38 bedrooms together to form a geometric serpent coiled against the slope, apparently emerging from the hillside. The powerful cuboid forms and rhythms have echoes of an earlier and subsequently unbuilt project for a hotel in Dublin (AR April 2005), but clearly this is designed for a very different clientele.

Adding to a piecemeal group of charity and healthcare facilities including a medical centre, the building delineates a protected shared landscape between them. In so doing it organises the entire site, yet it avoids turning the existing loose-fit cluster into a campus. The attenuated new architecture is so clearly different that its scale does not compete with its neighbours. Instead, it acts as a backdrop to the life of the complex, just as it hogs centre stage.

Rising three storeys high at its west-facing head, the building zigzags its way into the scrubby topography with the flat roof forming a hillside patio at its tail. In contrast to the jaunty plan, the elevations are governed by strict right angles. White rendered rooms are stacked unevenly, like balanced sugar cubes (or squared-off salt crystals, recalling the age-old salt production that accounts for the ‘sal’ in the name of the town). Wedge-shaped recessed balconies between the rooms extend the interior into welcome shade. Each balcony reads as a gap, creating a ‘grandma’s teeth’ effect in the rhythmic facade. The generous gesture of associating this much semi-enclosed outdoor space with each bedroom will combat any sense of being trapped by the limitations that come with age.

The entire ground floor is given over to communal rooms: a dining room, a lounge and an atelier that can be used for group activities or meetings. Large, some of them dramatically large, hinged glass doors swing out through deeply recessed openings on to the shared landscape, enhancing the reading of the building as an inhabited wall. Skilfully manipulated shadows animate the rectilinear composition, throwing grey diagonals across the elevations. Sloping soffits at openings and oblique bedroom balcony walls combine to create a false perspective that heightens the theatricality of the architecture.

The matter-of-fact interior continues the playful monotone palette, bringing light into the plan through pockets of double-height space, pale veined marble floors and speckled acoustic ceilings. Widening at intervals to form impromptu living areas, the upper-level corridors are punctuated by full-height windows that provide a visual cadence to movement. The effect slows everything down to an unhurried tempo, in keeping with the lifestyles of the residents. This subdued pace, together with the insistent whiteness of everything, reinforce the institutional sensibility of the building, yet it is an appropriately dignified sensibility. Rather than attempting to reproduce the diverse ways that individuals make and shape their own homes, Aires Mateus has reinterpreted the home as a collective endeavour.

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