A Virtual Community That’s Defining the Future of a Physical One

New tools are allowing plugged-in seniors to craft their own retirement community

Bruce Mau Design recently worked as a part of a team with HWKN architects to develop the design of a new LGBT retirement community in Palm Springs, California. The project was recently featured on Co. Design in “BOOM! Palm Springs Plans a Wacky, $250m Old Folks’ Community for Gays.”


The project will be designed by 10 amazing established and up-and-coming architecture firms, and will feature a rooftop disco and a climbing wall. But one of the most exciting features is the blurred distinction between the community as it exists physically, and the one that’s emerging online.

Our work started with designing the story of the place. That included the name and the visual identity. We weren’t satisfied with the notion that a retirement village, let alone a LGBT retirement village, should be treated conventionally, and so the more active name and logo were designed to reflect the unusual, vibrant, and exciting nature of the project. And so, together, we worked toward a name that matched that vitality: BOOM!


[Hollwich Kushner’s dramatic climbing wall challenges the ability of aging residents.]

As we moved on to the online component of the project, the two teams worked very closely to understand where the real focus should be.


The online community will inform how the master plan develops.

As we began to talk about how the project would live online, we decided that the conventional approach to web design — developing a site that works across all browsers — was not the right approach for BOOM! We learned that our community was made up mostly of early adopters, who favored mobile- and tablet-based browsing, and so we created a site that would be best experienced on the iPad and iPhone. That meant no Flash and a slightly awkward layout on a regular browser, but we were more interested in appealing to fewer, but more advanced, users who would be part of the community.

Then things got really exciting. The HWKN and BMD teams worked together to think about how the online community could begin to drive the design of the physical space. Since the project is in master planning mode, there was an opportunity to let the community begin to shape the character of the place. Through a part of the site called “The Configurator,” interested prospective community members can share their interests, (such as tennis), with the designers of the master plan. As the project evolves and more participants share their interests, the online community will begin to inform how the master plan develops. If it’s a community of tennis players, the project will get more tennis facilities.

This isn’t an entirely new idea. Hong Kong’s West Kowloon Cultural District is soliciting community participation and opinions on how that site might respond to the needs of the local citizens. Architects, like HWKN, are realizing that there’s a great opportunity to make the traditionally slow moving fields of architecture and urban planning more fluid and responsive by providing online platforms to capture the desires of the people who matter most: those that will live there.



[Arakawa + Gin’s wacky funhouse allows intergenerational play.]


For BOOM!, online planning takes the idea to a new level, and gets even more personal. As a retirement community, there will be a broad range of age groups living at BOOM! And so, through The Configurator, you can become an active and engaged member of the community by offering your own services to the greater benefit of your neighbors. Some community members may need dog walking, while others will be happy to walk dogs. Some may need errands to be run, while others will need help running errands. By matching services virtually, the community will be a vibrant social fabric before a single person moves in. Not only that, but when neighbors do move in, they’ll already know each other.

When neighbors move in, they’ll already know each other.

As the project continues to develop, the community is taking part in its creation. As social media and crowd-propelled online communities become more and more fluid, the project becomes stronger. And as the technologies strengthen connections between people online, those fluid relationships can translate into real world benefits.

And there are even plans to take the show on the road: HWKN has a particular interest in understanding aging and architecture. And no wonder, since this year marks the first year that the baby boom generation will begin retiring. There are plans for a whole series of live events: workshops, seminars, and exhibitions, which are meant to not only build the BOOM! community, but to also serve as a platform to talk about the bigger social issues and concepts that BOOM! is addressing.



[J. Mayer H.’s clubhouse will function as a community center.]


Community building, as a design practice, is becoming more and more exciting. We now design a much broader range of tools to help build the community before the physical buildings are built.

It all adds up to a new field: information master planning.

Print media still holds an important place in that ecology since it allows for stories that people can hold in their hands. Physical information, in the form of signage and graphics, helps residents understand their surroundings. And it all adds up to a new kind of field: information master planning. Information master planning can help to amplify and accelerate the physical master plan and architecture, and it’s clear that the possibilities inherent in the digital realm, as we’re seeing with this project, are on the verge of massive growth. It feels like the moment before a sonic BOOM!


About the author

Paddy Harrington is the founder of Frontier, a creative exploration company consisting of a magazine, ventures group and design studio based in Toronto, Canada. He was formerly the SVP Design Innovation and Digital Creative Director at Indigo Books and, prior to that, the Executive Creative Director at Bruce Mau Design


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