words Marcus Fairs
In 2003, Rem Koolhaas officially ended his love affair with America.
He closed OMA’s New York office after the cancellation of a string of projects and instead announced he had shifted his gaze eastwards to countries like China. But earlier this summer, his two surviving US projects – Seattle Public Library and Prada Beverly Hills Epicenter – opened to rave reviews just as news came through that his huge CCTV project in Beijing had been put on hold. Icon joined Koolhaas and Ole Scheeren, OMA architect in charge of the Prada project, for breakfast in Los Angeles before visiting the Beverly Hills and Seattle buildings.
Rem: Everything nasty we had to say about America we said in Content [the Rem Koolhass/OMA book published earlier this year]. After 9/11, lots of our American projects were cancelled. That happened to everyone – we didn’t consider ourselves particular victims. And of some of the cancellations I’m not even convinced will remain cancellations. Since then we opened the Seattle library and that really made us eat our words because it’s the most public, the most generously programmed and the most enthusiastically inhabited building we ever did.
Ole: The time slot in which Seattle happened made it possible. Early enough before 9/11 but also late enough in a period of real enthusiasm.
Rem: We really had all the ideal conditions there. If it had started one year earlier it would never have happened, and if it had happened one year later it would never have happened. That shows the tiny windows through which almost every architecture project these days has to pass.
Is America suddenly rediscovering public-spiritedness in architecture?
Rem: I think the public-spiritedness was always there. Behind every museum there’s an incredible story of patronage. The boom of the 90s and 9/11 together really destabilised many different things that need to be reinvented. But Seattle is a unique place; it’s an almost Canadian culture.
Ole: Also coming to LA, arriving here, there is certainly a good feeling about that.
Rem: It’s actually so wonderful.
Ole: And maybe they also had their thing with icons [in Seattle] with [Gehry’s] Experience Music Project. There was a certain saturation.
Rem: It was a city in which the word icon had a very bad reputation.
What are the Prada Epicenters about?
Rem: They are meant to be read against the background of the generic Prada store, which is a repetitive module. These try to be as different as possible in each case. We did one in New York; Herzog & de Meuron did one in Tokyo. There are more coming in China and different places.
Ole: Usually when clients approach an architect there is a clear brief but not necessarily a clear idea of what they need. With Prada there was absolutely no brief, but there was a very clear analysis of their situation: they had grown from a small family business to a worldwide fashion empire, and this meant they couldn’t keep on doing things the way they had before. So the sameness they had built up became at that point almost dangerous; it was an uber-identity that became too repetitive.
Rem: I hate both the word “brand” and the word “identity”. Prada’s gambit has been to avoid both.
Ole: There was something nice Miuccia [Prada] said a few days ago. She said what she likes about this store is it allows her to be very small again. It functions like a boutique. She can do completely different things in that store.
Rem: Each tries to address or exploit its context but a particular preoccupation of Prada is questioning the whole idea of a store that is always the same. They insisted from the very beginning on a degree of mutability – stores that could change character. In the case of New York [designed by OMA and which opened just after 9/11] it can be a totally commercial space or a totally public space. But the entire Prada effort was marked by 9/11 and looked totally misbegotten. To introduce the public here looks politically more correct in the sense that everyone has totally had it with the current erosion of freedom or whatever. But in both stores we have given the freedom not to shop.
Ole: When you look at the stores along Rodeo Drive it’s all portico motifs and travertine, stucco or granite: a search for a presence on the street. So just to do nothing at all was really an appealing thought.
Rem: What we tried to do here was to have public space invade the store. We realised that the Hollywood climate is so wonderful that conditions outside would be perfect for conditions inside, so therefore the less of a membrane there is the better. So in this case we made a store without a front on Rodeo Drive. It’s a hybrid condition between public and commercial space.
Ole: In New York it is this event space – the street character of the big space. People go across the street to Dean and Deluca, buy a coffee, and go into the store to sit on the stairs and drink their coffee with their friends. Here it’s much more the way it literally opens up to the public and blurs the line between the street and the store.
Rem: It has a very strong architectural effect because it means that everything that is happening outside becomes totally drawn into the compositional logic. So in a way it’s a very aggressive little building.
Ole: A lot of the high-end flagship stores have this minimal design so they look their best when they’re completely empty. So it was about how we could do an environment where the interaction with the merchandise was much more direct and casual, and pleasurable. Where you could try on shoes … in the discourse with Prada we discovered for example that shoes were usually sold in the most concealed part of the store, usually at the back where there is not too much traffic, where there was enough privacy. So we moved them onto the stairs, which is the most public part imaginable in the store.
Rem: We decided not to experiment with materials but to develop materials. So you will see a material that is neither substance nor nothingness: foam. Then there is an interesting statistic: above the void is the largest single plate of architectural aluminium ever made.
Ole: It’s a half-inch thick aluminium plate of 45 feet by 12 feet. The tolerances are so enormous – it’s one eighth of an inch across the whole plate – that the thing was rolled a bit thicker and then machined down. The machining was done by a company in San Diego that is involved in space shuttle production. What is important is not that it is the biggest but that it is simply a single sheet without any rhythm or detailing.
Rem: So basically the same technologies that Frank Gehry uses to warp interesting shapes we are using to create an inert rectangle.
icon grabbed a few minutes with Miuccia Prada on the steps of her new store.
What is the Epicenter concept all about?
It’s all about wanting to expand as a company and at the same time to stay small. Our aim is for every shop to be different from the others. These spaces are so beautiful that you have to produce special merchandise – you can’t put mediocre stuff in them. You have to work more.
Why did you choose Rem?
Being part of the avant garde is part of our way of working. We didn’t know his work, but just by looking at books we realised there was something more interesting, so that fascinated me. We heard that he was so difficult but we thought if he is so difficult he must be the right person for us.
As soon as we met we realised we had many things in common. He said he wanted to do months of research to start with. So he and his people came to the factory, they interviewed everybody, trying to go deep into understanding our problem, why we wanted to do something new. He analysed how you become big and stay small. He came out with a huge book analysing the company. We liked it so much we started working with him. Every time we are in a panic over something we ask them.
Herzog & de Meuron designed your Tokyo store for you.
That is completely different because [Herzog] is a more traditional architect. So he’s not so much interested in things other than architecture. The collaboration with Rem is different because it’s beyond the building.
9/11 must have had a huge impact on you.
In the 90s it was easy because you sold everything so you became lazy, or spoilt; now people have stopped buying just for the sake of buying. If you do interesting things, you sell a lot. This is very healthy, but you have to work so much harder.
Do the Epicenter stores work for you commercially?
Ah, yes, they sell like crazy. New York takes a huge amount of money. Probably people are more excited and like to come to interesting places.
Why not London, Paris or Milan?
Because we had already acquired these locations years ago. We knew we couldn’t do something normal in these places. Now we are interested in doing one in China and maybe one in Europe. But we have to find the right place.
Is Prada thinking of moving into furnishings or interiors?
Not at all. I hate it when companies do too many things just to expand the brand.