Published online by Cambridge University Press: 08 October 2022
‘I think – my personal view is – it’s probably one of the most significant projects we will do because it’s one of the projects which has allowed us to bring together our thinking about the city – how we might live together better in the city, through what we’ve learned from designing public spaces – with what we’ve learned from designing public buildings – how to make an institution, but one we’re hoping [sic] through various architectural means and material, will not feel institutional.’Stephen Witherford, Witherford Watson Mann Interview, London, 2019
The project in question here, as described by its designer, the architect Stephen Witherford, is conceptualized as an “almshouse for the twentyfirst century”. Located on a high street in the inner-city neighbourhood of Bermondsey, South London, it provides housing for around ninety elderly people. Designed to be open and, to an extent, continuous with the public spaces and social interactions of the high street rather than merely as an object building contained and defended within the boundaries of its site, it has been conceived by the practice Witherford Watson Mann as a node in a complex network of caring practices, relationships and spaces that extend out into the surrounding neighbourhood and beyond.
As such, it exemplifies a trend in the design of eldercare in the UK, as in many other nations globally, involving the development of what are termed deinstitutional models of care in place of traditional models within bounded institutional settings. These new models encompass varied combinations of formal care services and informal types of care made available to people living outside of traditional institutions such as nursing homes. They pertain to a wide array of spaces too, from the long-term family home where someone may wish to age-in-place, to day care centres where people may go for a few hours to receive particular forms of support beyond the home, to residential accommodation such as the almshouse where people may live relatively independently but with help, services and resources close at hand. Design has an important role to play in facilitating these deinstitionalized models of care, just as it has embodied ideas of care and practices of care in institutions of various kinds, reflecting through place and materiality how, as Christine Milligan (2016 : 134) puts it, ‘care is being constructed and reconstructed’ continually in society.