What made the Rem Koolhaas wave worth waiting for
Joseph Giovannini -- Interior Design, 4/1/2002 12:00:00 AM
Does it sell? Will it play? Don't you want it? In a consumer age predicated on desire, the it-has-to-work mantra has expanded to include the buzz that sends a project deep into the information stream. (Whether Frank Gehry's Guggenheim works as a museum for displaying art is almost secondary because the spectacle of those swimming titanium torsos was compelling enough to precipitate the massive press coverage that drew droves of people to Bilbao.) For years, Prada built discreet, smartly designed shops that supported the merchandise but didn't really elevate the temperature around Prada or distinguish it from the other international luxury labels. To rise to the next plateau in New York, Miuccia Prada hired Rem Koolhaas to brand Prada as a patron.
The opening of Koolhaas's SoHo store rivaled one of Mrs. Astor's parties for New York's 400 and Truman Capote's Black and White Ball. Even Mayor Rudolph Giuliani waded in with his bodyguards. What guests found was more than the ultimate loft boutique—23,500 square feet costing a reported $40 million and involving Koolhaas's Office for Metropolitan Architecture and architect of record Architecture Research Office. The design alters the perception of shopping. Visitors immediately confront a zebrawood wave that terraces down to the basement, rising again opposite. Also clad in zebrawood, the second wave pivots down to become a stage. By day, the terraces display shoes. At night, metal display cages mounted on tracks make room for cultural events, and an audience sits on the steps to enjoy a performance. In today's conflation of art and commerce, art usually cedes the ground; here, commerce gives pride of place to spectacle. Anything can happen in the huge hollow, and it's not necessarily for sale.
Lofts, of course, are glorified boxes. Their apparent malleability aside, they're exceedingly difficult to break open into anti-box statements. Koolhaas doesn't even try. After scooping out his sweeping hollow, he works within the given. Content to subvert rather than transform the frame, he dresses surfaces with translucent cellular polycarbonate that ghosts the walls and ceiling, making boundaries indeterminate. Windows read like a shadowy facade.
While a circular glass elevator on a single stainless-steel piston delivers people dramatically downstairs, most prefer the higher drama of surfing down the wave to the most glamorous basement level imaginable. Most of Prada's retail square footage is below grade, and Koolhaas has atypically inverted the value of space, making the lower floor the grail of the procession. He has simply invited the street into the store, a maneuver that Le Corbusier called the promenade architecturale. In these parts, it's a fashion parade.
At the base of the wave, clothes are suspended in a movable shelving system borrowed from library technology, which lets Prada reconfigure displays at the turn of a wheel. Koolhaas has choreographed a ballet mécanique, but he does not see the mechanical paradigm as separate from electronics. In the fitting rooms, visitors step on a pedal to turn the glass door opaque, then try on an outfit in front of a video camera that transmits an image to a screen implanted in the mirror. They see themselves front and back, real and virtual, in a private fun house.
Briefly a Hollywood scriptwriter, Koolhaas also positioned video screens outside the fitting rooms, and the old Italian movies and fashion shows displayed lend the space an evocative and provocative visual text. Real time mixes with movie time. An act as simple as picking out a dress becomes a heightened experience and an urban performance. Prada buzzes.