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Architecture Review

Store Design May Be Bold, but It Doesn't Fit Quite Right

Rem Koolhaas' concept for a Prada showroom tends toward gestures that are over the top.

January 18, 2002|NICOLAI OUROUSSOFF | TIMES ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

NEW YORK — The opening of a clothing store is rarely a major architectural event. But the new Prada boutique in SoHo, designed by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, is no normal store.

The project pairs one of the world's most talented architects with a fashion powerhouse known for making bold creative leaps. Koolhaas' reputation as a radical urban thinker dates to the 1978 publication of his first book, "Delirious New York." In recent years, he has landed a string of impressive commissions, including a concert hall in Porto, Portugal, scheduled for completion in 2003, and a major redesign for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art's Wilshire Boulevard campus. Prada, meanwhile, has invested $40 million in the New York store, making it one of the most expensive commercial projects, per square foot, in the city's history. With such resources at his disposal, Koolhaas was expected to shake up the fashion establishment, to reinvent shopping for the 21st century. But despite a wealth of technological gadgetry, the project lacks both the conceptual clarity we have come to expect from Koolhaas' firm, the Office for Metropolitan Architecture, and the elegance associated with Prada. Worse, the store opens at a time when New York--still suffering from the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks--is recoiling from gestures of conspicuous consumption. The result comes off as more self-indulgent than savvy, a relic from a time when over-the-top opulence was still the norm.

The store occupies a block-long site at the corner of Prince Street and Broadway that was once occupied by the Guggenheim Museum's SoHo branch. (The museum has moved into a smaller space next door.) The entire project is dominated by what Koolhaas calls the Wave--a concave form that swoops down from just beyond the entry to basement level and back up again. On one side, the ramp is equipped with rows of bleacher-like seating; on the other, its smooth, zebra wood surface evokes a skateboard ramp.

The Wave performs a dual function. During the day, the seating is used to display shoes. At night, the Wave can be transformed into a 150-seat theater. The shoes are packed away. Opposite, a large mechanical platform flips down to provide a stage. Koolhaas originally envisioned the Guggenheim using this space for art events. But the museum pulled out after Sept. 11, and the space now will be run by the Prada Foundation, which until now has mostly promoted the work of contemporary artists.

The rest of the store is laid out around this central space. A large, cylindrical glass elevator stands just to the left of the entry. To the right, the entire north wall is decorated with exotic flowered wallpaper. Above, racks of dresses are suspended in perforated metal cages. Other displays are located at basement level in a labyrinthine series of compact, windowless rooms.

Koolhaas conceived of these spaces as a series of titillating, voyeuristic experiences. The sleek, piston-like elevator functions as a display cabinet where Prada can show off items such as a $19,000 crocodile duffel bag and self-admiring shoppers can pose for surrounding crowds. The metal cages, which hold racks of elegant dresses, look as if they should be inhabited by gyrating go-go dancers.

Other naughty pleasures include the changing rooms, which are tucked along a back wall that faces the underbelly of the Wave. Empty, the changing rooms' glass facades are transparent. Once inside, shoppers can tap a button and the glass turns opaque, so they can disrobe in privacy. Tap another button and the glass is transparent again, allowing those inside the room to model for friends or other shoppers outside.

At moments like this, Koolhaas seems to be mining new psychological territory. The armor that fashion can provide is stripped away, and shopping is reduced to an intimate social act--a mix of sex, seduction and narcissistic self-display.

At other times, the architect falls back on old art-house cliches. The lingerie, for example, hangs along a narrow corridor, facing a series of darkened booths in which a thin, horizontal strip of video images, set at eye level, depicts Prada fashion shows and clips of Goddard films interspersed with an occasional blurry sex scene.

Such conceptual slip-ups are relatively easy to correct. But ultimately the design's failure rests with the Wave. Koolhaas first raised the idea of using the shop for public activities in 1999, during a meeting with Guggenheim director Thomas Krens. Linking Prada to the Guggenheim would give both added cachet, Koolhaas told Krens, and the Guggenheim needed a new downtown location for art events. Why not combine the two into a single experience?

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