Waiting for Prada
Rem Koolhaas designs a fantasy environment for Prada's Soho store—or does he?
Philip Nobel -- Interior Design, 4/1/2001 12:00:00 AM
A LOT OF THINGS did not happen last year. The world did not end, the votes were not counted, and Rem Koolhaas did not complete a store for Miuccia Prada in Soho. In fact, the sharp Prada logo silkscreened on the window of the former Guggenheim shop at Broadway and Prince has become a kind of semi-permanent, semi-poignant neighborhood landmark, a blind eye watching prosperity ebb, an emptiness that redefines the meaning of "coming soon." Meanwhile, Koolhaas's phantom work for Prada in New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco looms large over the fashion world. Until an exhibition staged at the Milan shows last March, the designs were a Prada state secret. But by then they had all found the eyes of their intended admirers. There were the images spirited into the pages of Wired and Women's Wear Daily; there were the flickering I.O.U.s promised by Koolhaas in his many, many Year 2000 slide lectures. (Behold! The Pritzker Prize winner approaches and he bears images of unrealized retail.) Even though nothing has been built, when one thinks or speaks of the febrile cohabitation of fashion and design, it can only be Rem and Miuccia, it will always be Rem and Miuccia, and it must remain Rem and Miuccia—at least until something else comes along. For now they stand alone and together, in a special, gentle universe where everything is possible but nothing gets done; where clients are beggars and designers are choosers; where time stands still and their fans stand by, waiting for a chance to rave.
The Prada projects may represent the most sublime coupling of fashion and architecture ever achieved: Fashion reached out to architecture for gravitas and architecture responded with hype. What is the opposite of strange bedfellows?—maybe someone's notion of an ideal marriage, fluffed by the press. There is so much enthusiasm and we have yet to see a single sheet of Prada-green gyp-board. The press can't control itself: "Koolhaas is reinventing how conventional fashion stores function!"; "Koolhaas intends to strike a blow against blankness!"; "The Soho Prada will be an act of decisive resistance!" Elsewhere, we have learned that the designs merge "theater, worship, fashion, architecture, design, and shopping," making Koolhaas "possibly the trendiest man on the planet!" Of the New York store, the usually sober Financial Times wrote: "Art and Mammon will be propping up the bar, getting intoxicated with the proceeds and wondering why on earth it took so long for their friendship to blossom." Ingrid Sischy, a Prada intime, claimed in Interview that the new stores "will revolutionize the way people shop."
And the revolution will be televised. One feature of the Soho store's dressing rooms will be a plasma screen video system that will allow customers to, yes, check out their butts without craning their necks. Some report that the hook-up will let this next generation of happy dévotés e-mail screen captures or make short "action" movies. (My guess is we'll see whatever the techies can get to work by whenever it is that all concerned say "enough is enough.") In an effort to stoke the hype, other approved details of the New York store—the prototype flagship, if you will—have been "leaked" since the designs were first sketched last year. The dressing room doors are to be made of electrically-charged glass that will go from opaque to oh my! at the flick of a switch (a gimmick with more than a whiff of Starck that was pioneered many years ago in the bathroom stalls of a never-trendy bar a block away from Prada Soho). A special micro-climate system will heat the dressing rooms on demand, so December customers can slip comfortably into May fashions. And, because at times it can be oh-so-irksome to pull on one's Prada slippers and scamper out to hail a salesperson, there will be a hotline from each booth directly to the inventory room.
The only saving grace is likely to be the megamural photographs by Andreas Gursky planned for each store. As one disgruntled Koolhaas Kid inquired recently, "Could someone please just come out and say how uninteresting these designs are?" Okay: the designs are not interesting. But secrecy is. The site of the New York store, 23,000 sq. ft. on street level and below, has quite literally been shrouded for a year—through the climax and decline of Manhattan's hottest-ever real estate market. Only a lucky few have enjoyed the privilege of peeking in. On several occasions the white window coverings were removed to allow daylight to shine on a full-scale mock-up of its central feature, a dipping ramp (sparing not the tropical hardwoods) that I won't dignify by comparison to a half-pipe. It will display shoes by day and buskers by night: Flip! The gear packs away to reveal a performance space. It is a weak nod, one suspects, to Soho's past glories, and a strange echo of that rage for "cross-programming" that many thought had died out back in the mid-'90s.
Less is known about the California projects. The Los Angeles store will be three stories of new construction, totaling 21,000 sq. ft., at 343 North Rodeo Drive. Concept models show a space with a translucent ceiling accessed by a double stair that might be a first pass at Lincoln Center retro chic. There is a rumor circulating that part of the facade will be hydraulically activated, but that is true of so many projects these days. Five-thousand sq. ft. of "temporary" Prada can be found nearby on Rodeo. In San Francisco, at the corner of Post Street and Grant Avenue, Koolhaas and Ko. have designed a ten-story tower sheathed entirely in elaborately perforated stainless steel. It will include space for a store, showrooms, offices, and a penthouse in 40,000-plus sq. ft. A clever ramping vitrine set into the sidewalk recalls the best of post-Brutalist department store design circa 1977. Rem and Miuccia may be thinking Neiman's—but should someone fill them in about the NASDAQ?
It will be interesting to see how the stores are received, opening, as it appears they will, in an era that might be called post-irrational, or at least post-exuberant. With all of their excesses—in time, materials, and, we can only imagine, money—and all of their millennial faith that through technology one can attain purchases, and through purchases salvation, it would seem that the Prada stores have missed their moment to shine. For the record, New York is supposed to be completed in June, Los Angeles some time later this year, and the San Francisco tower in 2002. But if they're not, tant pis. There's always next season's shows.