Issue #3

Nov 19, 2017

Home for the Aged

Home for the Aged

Where do you want to live when you are old?

The Eden Alternative is a philosophy of eldercare that emphasizes interaction among older people and the natural and human worlds in order to relieve the kind of suffering that especially afflicts them – loneliness, helplessness, and boredom.

Its guiding principles are illustrative (as is word choice – the aged are referred to with the honorific  ‘Elders’, rather than as patients, clients, or even seniors).  

Here are a few:

“ Loving companionship is the antidote to loneliness.  Elders deserve easy access to human and animal companionship.”

“ An Elder-centered community creates opportunity to give as well as receive care.  This is an antidote to helplessness.”

“ An Elder-centered community imbues daily life with variety and spontaneity by creating an environment in which unexpected and unpredictable interactions and happenings can take place.  This is the antidote to boredom.”

“Meaningless activity corrodes the human spirit.  The opportunity to do things that we find meaningful is essential to human health.”1

While an improvement on the corporate nursing home model prevalent when the Eden Alternative was first conceived, this new focus was still limited. It accepted the troubling paradigm of collective yet separate, away and out-of sight warehousing of the elderly. Elder-only residential homes are isolating at the community scale. Quality of life improvements that can be made within this framework, while important, are insufficient and ultimately ineffective.

Landscape architecture can be practiced critically, by challenging societal conventions with design proposals and professional advocacy. I was wearing this hat when I proposed an alternative to the Eden Alternative in 2005, for an assisted living center (ALC) in Springfield, Oregon. The owner, Riverbend Hospital, wanted to build an assisted living center on the McKenzie River, and operate it according to Eden Alternative principles.

Master Plan (site in red)

For me the very site was problematic. Although close to the hospital, it was an isolated parcel on the river, too far from the city of Springfield to make interaction with the wider community easy or likely. This condition greatly challenged the Eden Alternative precept of continual, informal, spontaneous, and broad human contact. The elongated site worked against communal spaces within the facility too, further confounding daily interactions among residents. There were compelling amenities, though. Beautiful river and farmland landscapes surrounded the parcel, and it was next to a main roadway.


In order to mitigate the disadvantages and deeply support the Eden Alternative mission, I proposed an inter-fingering building + landscape design.  Like an ecotonal2 system, this parti (foundational concept) encourages and promotes interaction and integration in many aspects and at many scales:  building with landscape, facility with community, residents with nature, residents with each other, and river with land.

The design expresses these relationships directly with material, tangible connections, and also implies them abstractly, for an intuitive understanding. Here are some specifics of the design:

Building Plan – program

The proposed building faces the street and orients to the sun (very much a desired good in rainy Oregon), while reaching towards the river, allowing landscapes in, and providing views for everyone.  The works of Louis Kahn, Alvar Aalto, and Frank Lloyd Wright are precedent for buildings conceived both as ground (a backdrop, to nature in this case) and figure (the main visual object).

The building spine – its central nervous system – is arrayed along the roadway edge to greet the community. This welcoming and integrating part features retail businesses and community services that both serve and employ the public and residents; it also houses administrative, reception, and staff functions.

The residential wings have private homes, and semi-private communal spaces which offer distinct activities wing by wing for residents and personal visitors.

Glass-enclosed hallways connect residential wings to the main building, and to each other.


Site Plan

The adjacent farm, river, and building environments are brought into the ALC grounds where they overlap and meet in different ways, creating a variety of private, semi-private, and public spaces.

Semi-public spaces include the chapel grounds, a community garden + orchard, and lawns where neighbors, residents, and visitors encounter each other informally.

More public spaces integrate the ALC into the larger community:  a river boardwalk + dock, a bandshell pavilion with seating, and walking/biking paths throughout the property.

Plan Detail (birds eye view)
Chapel, Residences & Gardens

Home gardens are designed to consider resident preferences. These private spaces are set in semi-private farm, forest, water or built contexts that vary by residential wing.

All of the elements proposed by this design meet and expand upon the Eden Alternative vision to provide enlivened environments: “habitats, not facilities”.

If they built it, would you come?


For more insight see the booklet below that illustrates my design process and the resulting ideas.

  • Riverbend text building
  • Riverbend-Parti-OPT
  • Riverbend-BLD1
  • Riverbend-BLD2
  • Riverbend-BLD3

  • Riverbend-text-LS-OPT
  • Riverbend-Parti-OPT
  • Riverbend-LS1-OPT
  • Riverbend-LS2-OPT
  • Riverbend-LS3-OPT


Before and After

Before and After


 Before, we were itinerant, unattached to things or places or people, and so our habitats were makeshift, improvised, borrowed accommodations.  We exchanged them rather easily as circumstances changed. Our place on Eld Street began that way.  Although a single family home when built, it was a multifamily house (for a generation) or so when Bruce arrived in New Haven.  He, and then we, rented the downstairs apartment from Stanley and Mary who lived above.  After Stanley died and Mary moved to a retirement home, we rented the upstairs apartment too, using it as office and studio.  Slowly, unremarkably, we grew accustomed to New Haven, and the house became our home.  We felt urban, but settled; we got used to things.  We developed routines, we appreciated proximities.  The longer we were here the more it suited us, and eventually we bought the house from Stanley’s and Mary’s daughter.  We have been renovating and re-imagining and recreating this place ever since.  The house now holds everything we know and are, and it is an homage to all of our teachers and to the past, while being a place for our present, and for someone else’s future.

While we wanted to occupy and use the whole house, we were cautious about too much change, or too much change too soon.  We felt any upgrades and restorations should fit the neighborhood’s accumulated architecture, history, culture, and people.  There was a lot to consider – whether the neighborhood could support single family homes in the future, for example or whether multifamily housing would resurge.  And how to individualize without disrupting?  Could we grow the house as the neighborhood grew, as we grew, and also prepare it for a time after us?  It was a complicated puzzle, and we were just barely up to it.

The house had been built sometime before the turn of the last century.  It shows on the Sanborn fire insurance map of 1888, and that time seems right, given the history of similar houses here in New Haven and in Bridgeport.  The artifacts we discovered are from that era, too: an early nineteenth century wedding photo, ladies boots in turn-of-the-century style, and a money order receipt from 1902.  The building type is very common in the region, and it may be that the house was purchased as a plan, in one of several configurations.  We are still researching …

The history was intriguing and important, but we wanted to play and invent. Our eventual conceit for the re-design was a balance: conserve the old and introduce the new, from the front of the house to the back, from downstairs up, inside and out. Even this parti1  honored past building practices. In the past, new technologies and rooms like indoor bathrooms and kitchens were always added at the back, and unoccupied spaces like attics and basements became storage space and then living space over time.

We worked in phases as money allowed and inspiration struck.  Our biggest project was to remake the exterior.  We removed the aluminum siding and replaced it with painted clapboard. The windows and trim are new too, but in a style that echoes the originals.2  We were sad to lose the old windows with lead counterweights, but they leaked badly.  These changes were made on the three sides of the house visible from street and sidewalk, to acknowledge and strengthen the neighborhood vernacular style.  An antique door replaced Stanley’s heavy metal front door, itself a mid-century replacement of the original.

Our one break from the past in front is the new porch.  Most porches we have seen gracing similar houses are small entry porticoes, with flat roofs supported by Greek columns.  Stanley remade the original, we think, and extended the porch the full length of the house, adding turned posts, railings and a gable roof.  We liked the neighbor space the full porch offered – a place to chat with guests or passers-by – so our renovation keeps the best of both styles.  It is full length, with a shed roof supported by Greek columns. 

The back is different.  The south-facing facade is hidden from public view, and we took advantage of its invisibility to side it with unpainted cedar clapboard, in a contemporary style.  The trim is contemporary too, and the new windows number many more than there were originally.  The back porch is a kind of folly made with references to old and new.  The very different new look of the back doesn’t interrupt the traditional feel of the neighborhood, as it is not a part of any streetscape.

There was (and is) a constant conversation about conserving, adapting, and re-using existing elements inside the house too.  Some of the pieces we kept or restored: the two-story entry hall, a marble mantle in the front room (and its chimney), and the curving front staircase with walnut rail.  We let go a few old features to accommodate our present-day life; these changes happen more at the back of the house in support of our design concept.  We removed some interior walls and other clearly newer additions, like the two interior apartment entry doors.  Beyond the front staircase the house now expands into an open space with seating, dining area and kitchen that look out into the back yard.  We kept the vintage Geneva kitchen cabinets that were a modern upgrade when installed in the 1950’s.  We liked how they supported our overall scheme of ‘new at the back’.  Even though they were old to us, they were new to the house.

Upstairs most changes were practical and personal.  As these are private spaces the conversation with the past is less important to the larger scales of neighborhood or city scale.  Vertical separation of public and private is an original intent, too, reflected in the change in ceiling height as you ascend (from nine and a half feet to eight feet high to seven and a half feet at the attic peak).  The new bathroom is lined with closets and the laundry.  Our bedroom features another antique marble mantle and one originally styled window – but also has new skylights to replace the side windows which offered no privacy from the (very close) house next door.

We treated the attic like a brand new space, because it is most private; the only reference to the original house is the shape of the space, made by the gable roof and short side walls.  Here we put studio, with places for drawing and artmaking, reading and writing.  Bruce’s built-in cabinetry and shelving are tucked under the eaves along both side walls, and the windows back and front complement their respective exterior facades.

Flexibility was central to the design.  We wanted to preserve the options of easily converting the house back to apartments or allowing the house to work as a whole for a family with children, while still enjoying it in our empty-nest live/work way.  The first floor easily becomes an apartment again with the addition of an entry door where the old one was, and the second floor also readily converts.  The plan for a new apartment upstairs modifies the current bedroom and bath into three rooms – kitchen, dining and bath.  Studio becomes one or two bedrooms in either future scenario.  The first floor front room could be claimed by one apartment or the other as an office or receiving room, or even rented separately for short term stays.  So the house has many possibilities, and can adapt as needed to accommodate any number of futures.  We have designed for change.

Beyond this vision we introduced many elements to make the house our own.  Architects value what came before, and we are honest and forthcoming about the precedents underlying any/every new design.  What we make is an ongoing conversation with those who inspired and taught us with their work.  In this house we reference and allude to a precession of master builders and artists:  Philip Johnson, Luís Barragán, Piet Mondrian, Anni Albers, Josef Albers, Alvar Aalto and Santiago Calatrava, among so many others.  We also keep in mind the people who lived here before us: the turn-of-the-last-century wedding photo we found in the basement hangs again in the front room, in its original frame.

It has been said that a house is a metaphor for self, and I can see our growth reflected in every decision, every built-in detail, every bit of decor.  This, now, is our after.  The past echoes throughout, while the changes we initiated and those we have lived are inscribed.  Before, we were expansive, now we conserve.  We created, now we are stewards; we sowed, now we reap.  We have prepared for the big after, when the house is no longer ours – when we no longer are.  We are comfortable with leaving because we have built into ourselves everything we have built into the house:  we can have this house anywhere; we have this house forever. We will turn over the house as we turn over the world to the coming generations, expecting and acknowledging change.

In this way, too, the house has its own before and after, holding all the befores and afters of its inhabitants. We were careful not to completely restore the house to its original design and thereby permanently erase the many renditions. The most important meaning of its history is not found in original details or preservation plaques or the names on the door, but rather in continuance, by virtue of adaptation. The house embodies all pasts, the present, and the future, just as we do now, after.

House Front (after)




Attic1 by Deborah Zervas.

“These are the stairs to the attic
in the house I lived in
when I was six
my unshared sacred play room safe place
No boys allowed
except for the flooring
and my kitchen
Now the attic in my remodeled house
is my unshared sacred studio safe place
Finished, except for the flooring
and my work”

Stanley’s Yard

Stanley’s Yard

The design of our back yard is never done. There is always a new idea or an improvement to make, but still, many features are old. The Norway maples at the edges have likely been there sixty years or more, as has the neighbor’s garage that sits directly on the property line, and the climbing hydrangea that covers its eastern wall.

Not all have been loved equally. When the garage went up the neighborhood showed a more connected aesthetic, with open, continuous space. Property boundaries were marked by short wire fencing that allowed longer site lines, and gossiping. Stanley, who owned the house before us, was furious at the intrusion of the garage and covered its adjoining wall with many vining plants – wisteria, Virginia creeper, and Boston ivy alongside the hydrangea. But for us, privacy is welcome and the old bricks are tactile, warm, pleasingly regular in their pattern. The climbing hydrangea is gorgeous in all seasons, and adds another layer between us and the outside world. 

When they were planted the maples purposefully lined a back alley, but now the alley is gone, and adversely, the trees are labeled invasive. Many are cut down, though we love and value their shade and the quiet they afford, and find the seedlings hardly a bother. The centerpiece of the yard is the twenty-five feet tall magnolia tree, also beautiful throughout the year. But it is a constant annoyance to Stanley’s nemesis, Mr. Leibz, who owns the garage it overhangs.

When we first came to New Haven we lived downstairs from Stanley and Mary, and we knew them, for a short while. It was long enough to learn their concerns and cares, and for them to know and trust us. Stanley had been a landscaper at Yale and he practiced his trade at home with flare and dedication. Stanley last spoke with Bruce from the hospital before he died, to ask simply that Bruce take care of the yard. We took his request to heart; it has governed our stewardship these past twenty-seven years. His yard is a living book that we read again and again. No change has happened without long-time observation. We ponder, we debate, we question. Some plantings are gone but so many are still here – the viburnum, rhododendron, hydrangea, Oregon holly, yew, and the glorious magnolia, barely a stick when we moved in. We add and edit, but only to complement and enhance the established, inherited order.

The beautiful refuge Stanley left is not his only bequest. He was my teacher, and our garden – his and mine – now records everything I know, too. Here I have learned to pay attention, to be patient, to appreciate longer times, and to accept loss along with the new while restoring what I can. His foremost gift is my first principle of design: know what to keep.

After Barragán

After Barragán

“Without the desire for God, our planet would be a sorry wasteland of ugliness.”

Architect of Light and Silence

Luís Barragán, 20th century Mexican architect, landscape architect, and urban designer was unknown internationally until featured in a 1976 exhibition at MOMA in New York. He remained unheralded in his own country for much of his life, even after winning the Pritzker Prize in 1980. His body of work culminated in a repudiation of the International Style, the predominant design school of his time. Instead of a generically universal urban architecture, Barragán embraced the autobiographical, vernacular, and idiosyncratic in culture and nature. His genius lay in synthesizing disparate elements into an artistic expression that reconciled man and nature and anticipated an ecological philosophy commonplace today. Barragán’s works are testaments to the natural world, man’s place in it, and so to the divine. He created spaces that allow for contemplation of sun and sky, plant and earth – places of solitude, quiet, and wonder.

Barragán’s work owes to many influences: the geography, architecture, and culture of the Mediterranean, north and south: the writings and drawings of Ferdinand Bac: time spent in Mexican pueblos and on hacienda; his Catholicism; the Minimalist, Rationalist and De Stijl movements in art; and the artists Chucho Reyes, Mathias Goeritz, Miguel Corravubias, Rosa Corravubias, and Goya. Imagery that he specifically acknowledged includes waterworks (fountains, dam drains, ponds in orchards, well curbstones in convents), architectural features (whitewashed walls, patios), and cultural expressions (colorful Mexican streetscapes, the casbahs, the Spanish Moors).

Barragán distilled these references into signature elements. Inward facing residences, non-descript street facades, blank walls, vibrant color (white, orange, yellow, gold, blue, pink, purple), an intimate scale, water – moving and still, roof gardens, terraces, filtered light, primary volumes, horizontal planes, and straight lines all serve to highlight man’s relationship to nature.

Barragán’s designs fall into three periods: his residential work in Guadalajera (1927-1934), his rationalist stage (1934-1940), and his late stage work for which he is most well known. Seven designs of this period most powerfully illustrate his antecedents, philosophy and themes. They are the urban designs of El Pedregal, Las Arboledas, and Los Clubes; the residences San Cristobal House and Stables, Barragán House and Studio, and the Convent for Las Capuchinas; and the public art installation Satellite City Plaza.

Luís Barragán’s art reflects his desire for a world where man acknowledges and accommodates the natural in humble recognition of the divine order. It is a harmonic relationship that he posits, of counterpoint, intellect, and abstraction, where man frames nature and nature frames man, in exaltation of God. In his Pritzker address he said, “It is alarming that publications devoted to architecture have banned from their pages the words beauty, inspiration, magic, spellbound, enchantment, as well as the conepts of serenity, silence, intimacy, and amazement. All of these have nestled in my soul, and though I am fully aware that I have not done them complete justice in my work, they have never ceased to be my guiding light.”

Luís Barragán died in 1988.

Recommended reading;
For beautiful evocations of the Mexican landscape:
All the Pretty Horses (The Border Trilogy), Cormac McCarthy 1992

For the best photographs of Barragán’s work:
Barragán, Amando Salas Portugal 1992

For lucid analysis and synthesis:
The Architecture of Luís Barragán, Emilio Ambasz 1976

For early work, analysis, historic and artistic contexts:
Barragán The Complete Works, Raul Rispa 1966

For the modern landscape context:
Modern Gardens and the Landscape, Elizabeth Kassler 1964

After Barragán1 was first exhibited at The Coffee Table, New Haven CT
LANDSCAPES: Before and After Barragán
April 2002

Artist Statement


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