Fred A. Bernstein

Prada Placement

A Review of Rem Koolhaas' new store in SoHo

Published in World Architecture, March 15, 2002

In September, Frank Gehry's new store for the Japanese designer Issey Miyake opened on Hudson Street, a few blocks north of where the World Trade Center had stood. There was little publicity -- perhaps because a design rendered largely in twisted metal, just a crane's-length from the wreckage of Ground Zero, has a built-in p.r. problem. No matter how beautiful -- and it is beautiful -- the store is an eerie echo of the debris, and Gehry/Miyake were right to keep their opening low-key.

The same can't be said of Rem Koolhaas's Prada New York Epicenter, which opened with a bang: as paparazzi trailed Rudy Giuliani, Kevin Spacey (who ought to play the ex-Mayor in a movie someday) and Miuccia Prada around the store, thousands of revelers drank free champagne and nibbled on hors d'oeuvres from Mercer Kitchen. It may be that New Yorkers were finally ready to forget their troubles; were ready for this project to be done (after numerous delays); and were ready for a taste of "real" architecture. After all, New York Times critic Herbert Muschamp has been hailing Koolhaas -- and a handful of other Europeans -- as visionaries poised to save the city from architectural irrelevance.

Or perhaps New Yorkers were just ready to go shopping in a store designed by the expert on shopping. In his new book, The Harvard Design School Guide to Shopping, Koolhaas and 15 other essayists devote 800 pages to the sociological, technological and (of course) architectural manifestations of the 20th century's favorite indoor sport. Koolhaas' own contribution to the book is a dazzling essay on "junkspace" -- the ill-defined enclosures that result from "the encounter between escalator and air conditioning. . . . It is always interior . . . It promotes disorientation by any means . . . Junkspace's iconography is 13% Roman, 8% Bauhaus, 7% Disney." In a cheeky note to his fellow architects, Koolhaas writes: "you thought you could ignore Junkspace, visit it surreptitiously, treat it with contempt or enjoy it vicariously . . . . But now your own architecture is infected . . . atrium ridden."

Luckily for Rem, the Prada site isn't a shapeless sector of a Texas "galleria" but a neat rectangle in a solid, red-brick factory building. The space is long and narrow -- some 10 meters by 50 meters -- with a single entrance at each end. With cast-iron columns every 4 meters or so, the space could have imitated the great shopping arcades of 19th century London, Milan and Paris.

By covering the long south wall with milky plastic, which diffuses the view through nine large windows, and the north wall with billboard-like wallpaper (picture Matisse cutouts, but pixellated), Koolhaas emphasized the linearity of the space. But instead of the rhythm of an arcade, Koolhaas opted to give the room a single focus: a giant depression created where the zebrawood floor swoops seductively down into the basement. This is the epicenter's epicenter. Though its possible to walk the length of the store at street level, skirting the northern edge of the space, the caldera beckons. Descend in a nifty round glass elevator (not working on the day I was there, except as a multi-million dollar vitrine for handbags), or a stairway that morphs into shelves and seating (for concerts and lectures that Prada plans to hold here). Overhead, a series of cages (which, at Studio 54 would have contained go-go dancers) cage merchandise; hung from tracks, they can be repositioned at will -- like many of Koolhaas' interventions, this is a lot of technology for a fairly mundane purpose. A sculpture that looks like it's made of thousands of silk stockings also hangs from the ceiling; it turns out to conceal some 700 pounds of sound equipment.

The lower level is dense with the stuff of shopping (though nothing so crass as a cash register). Flat screens and other gizmos -- the outputs of Rem's Prada-funded "exploration" into shopping technology (documented in a separate book, Projects for Prada, Part 1) -- are everywhere. One seating area is "upholstered" in medical gel thought to be especially comfortable because its density is equal to that of the human body. Dressing rooms are made of glass that turns opaque on cue, and contain TV screens on which it's possible to see one's front and rear at once. True, no one I observed could make the system work; a lot of Rem's gems either didn't function, or didn't function well. Worse, because it extends under a lobby next door to the shop, the basement is a kind of -- yes -- junkspace, with rooms (including a VIP area of undisclosed dimensions, and weirdly described by Rem in "Projects" as "a place of hygienic rejuvenation") that lack clear boundaries. In one of these rooms, merchandise is displayed on a row of sliding shelves (comparable to library shelves) that create the feeling of a stockroom; indeed, a glass door opens onto the real stockroom, and there isn't that much difference.

The store has become a tourist attraction, attracting the crowds that eluded the Guggenheim SoHo when it occupied the same location. "You're right; it was definitely worth seeing," said one woman to another as they walked out onto Broadway on a recent Monday afternoon. Tellingly, neither was carrying a shopping bag. Elizabeth Wright Ingraham, a Colorado architect who is Frank Lloyd Wright's granddaughter, was there. Ms. Ingraham found the space "thrilling." Among other things, she observed, Koolhaas "succeeded in getting all the clutter off the floor." And though she tried on a leather jacket, she said, "the prices sent me running for the door."

In his book, Koolhaas observed that shopping works best when it insinuates itself into another life activity. That is, stores in hospitals, museums, airports, even churches, make more money than stores without such "cover."

Was Koolhaas putting his own discovery to the test, by trying to create a shopping venue camouflaged as a shrine to high (and high-tech) architecture? Or was he just giving his ambivalence about commercialism -- which infuses the Harvard Guide -- free rein? Presumably, Prada hopes to make back some of the $40 million it funneled through Koolhaas (although. as a kind of ad campaign, the store may benefit the company indirectly). Still, whether the Prada "epicenters" in L.A. and San Francisco, currently on the drawing boards, get built will reveal something of the company's direction.

Koolhaas has created create a high-end emporium for a high-end merchandiser; irreverent and expensive, it is the architectural equivalent of a Prada handbag. The book (Taschen, $80), is a better buy all around.