What do an Olympic city such as Atlanta, a school in South Africa, and a hospital in Sydney have in common? They are all constructed for a specific purpose - what architects call a "program". Buildings have traditionally been designed to function as part of a single program, whether that’s a hospital, a kindergarten, or a sporting arena.

In recent years, architects have become increasingly adept at designing flexible spaces that can accommodate a range of programs, such as contemporary art museums that also host wedding receptions and charity fundraisers.

In a post-Covid environment, the need for flexible and multifunctional spaces has become more apparent and is shaping the way architects are creating the spaces of tomorrow. A lesser-known facet of programming, however, has been brewing in the background and is slowly making its way to Australia. In addition to programming for multi-purpose spaces, some projects are exploring unprecedented programmatic overlaps to bring about extraordinary outcomes. The term for these programmatic overlaps is often referred to as cross-programming.

Perhaps the father of cross-programming is the renowned architect Rem Koolhaas. In his 40-year career, Koolhaas revolutionized architects' perceptions of space and program. It is in the book 'Delirious New York' published in 1978, that Koolhaas first proposed the idea of “cross-programming." According to Koolhaas, it can be thought of as intentionally introducing unexpected program types within buildings of different typologies. The cross-programming of Koolhaas has guided the design work of OMA - the studio he founded in 1975. OMA has evolved to become a global industry leader; lauded for its unpredictable combination of space.

It is fascinating to consider cross-programming as a way to bring about unforeseen interactions in the built environment. Cross-programming has often led architects to discover creative opportunities to facilitate new interactions and uses. Across the globe, architecture universities have incorporated cross-programming studios into their curriculums to inspire students to experiment with new and exciting juxtapositions and relationships between programs.

Consider an example of creative cross-programming integrated into a traditional nursing home to create an intergenerational hub.

Intergenerational care

The history of nursing homes dates back to the 17th century when English settlers brought the concept of almshouses to America. 300 years on, a revolutionary aged care model is taking the industry by storm, and Australia is leading the way. Traditionally, when you think of a nursing home, you imagine a place frequented by elderly people. However, there is a new model popularized by ABC’s Old People’s Home for 4-Year-Olds, that has helped people see the value of intergenerational care.

Flagship projects such as the Andrew Kerr Care nursing home in Victoria, one of at least three intergenerational care practices being built in Melbourne, see children and aged care residents mingling and interacting with each other in a newly constructed intergenerational learning center. Children and residents come together for a variety of planned activities such as music, dancing, art, gardening, lunch and storytelling.

Intergenerational research at Griffith University has shown that a bond between these two most vulnerable groups may prove much more beneficial than previously thought. Elderly people benefit from spending time with children, and frequent interaction with them throughout the day alleviates symptoms of loneliness and isolation. It allows them to become more mobile while enjoying the boundless joy children bring to their home environment. Many residents in aged care facilities are rarely visited by loved ones, so this ongoing interaction can provide them with a sense of purpose. For children, regular contact with the elderly teaches them to feel comfortable around, and understand the needs of those with a disability. Remarkably, children reportedly showed an increase in confidence and communication skills.

Mr Smith, a former teacher who has eight grandchildren and six great-grandchildren, is delighted to be surrounded by the joy and chattering of young children at his Andrew Kerr Care nursing home. “We are strangers, we are old, probably ugly too,” jokes 88-year-old Mr Smith. At the Australian Institute for Intergenerational Practice, Emeritus Professor Anneke Fitzgerald, who led the research, believes that it would cost much less to have these programs as a regular part of Australian society than to prescribe antidepressants for elderly people. "Now more than ever we need connection, and it’s a beautiful way to give back and also get so much back from the older generation,” says Fitzgerald.

This aged care example illustrates the profound impact creative cross-programming can have on end-users. I invite you to deconstruct your project brief and strip back the layers to uncover unconventional sources of inspiration to challenge the status quo. Reimagining programmatic relationships can bring a fresh dimension to your projects.