Rem Koolhaas Talks Prada and Architecture’s Relationship to Art

The renowned architect and polemicist speaks to Metropolis about the Fondazione Prada and rethinking the relationship between architecture and art.

The Fondazione Prada in southern Milan houses the fashion brand’s namesake arts foundation, established by Miuccia Prada and Patrizio Bertelli more than two decades ago. Opened in May, the walled-in compound is a small city of culture, with a series of revitalized industrial buildings linked by de Chirico–like “streets” and piazzettas.

Courtesy Roland Halbe

When the Fondazione Prada opened its doors to a new permanent home in Milan dedicated to contemporary culture, it not only placed the Italian city firmly at the forefront of today’s global art world, but also introduced an ambitious new way of thinking about the relationship between architecture and art. The location—an original 1910 distillery in a distinctly gritty part of the city—comprised seven spaces including warehouses and three enormous brewing cisterns with a raw industrial quality that the architects, Dutch firm OMA, retained while adding three new buildings made of glass, white concrete, and aluminum foam. One, the centrally located Podium, is intended for temporary shows, while another—still under construction—is a nine-story tower that will house the foundation’s archives, art installations, and a restaurant. The third, a theater with a mirrored facade, features folding walls that allow the building to open onto a courtyard. In total, the collection of buildings provides nearly 120,000 square feet of exhibition space, more than twice that of the new Whitney Museum of American Art. Metropolis correspondent Catherine Shaw visited the site with Pritzker Prize–winning architect Rem Koolhaas to find out more about the challenges of creating a new cultural paradigm.

Catherine Shaw: You’ve talked about this project “expanding” the repertoire of spatial technologies. Can you explain what you mean by this?

Rem Koolhaas: For a couple of years now,I have been … well, I don’t know what the best word is, but it is somewhere between bored and irritated, by the current course of architecture forcing people to be extravagant even if they don’t want or need that. I think there is a fatigue with “originality” now and an interest in the modesty of an artist. In this case, this was important for me as it allowed us to find a new relationship with architecture. It was more interesting than saying “Prada” or “We are interested in strange new materials.”

I saw an opportunity to use preservation as an antidote to this, so I declared I would work on, investigate, and mobilize the potential of renovation as a kind of a countermovement. We have done this for a couple of years now. When we worked on the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, we analyzed everything that existed and made a commitment not to add anything new but to simply reinterpret some of the buildings from that point of view.

We discovered that—in terms of size, intimacy, and also materials—existing architecture has so many conditions that, even if we wanted to, we couldn’t reproduce any more. It would be too expensive, and there are so many invisible rules now that didn’t exist before.

CS: But how is this “new”? Surely preservation has been part of the architect’s repertoire for some time now?

RK: Architecture in the past 20 years has been focused far too much on the expression of individual architects. The new Fondazione is not a preservation project and not new architecture. It is about respect for what was here. We started by analyzing what exists. There were a number of conditions and needs that were missing, so we added those into the new architecture. There are multiple levels to look into, and that is what we tried to do here; to mobilize the skill and the freedom and the steepness and the compression that is there and then add things that expand the repertoire so that we have a collection of spaces.

A lot of things here may look authentic, like the sequence of small rooms that become bigger in one of the galleries, but that was our intervention rather than a “found” situation, so we are also playing with the look of a found object. We actually intervened everywhere on that level.

We didn’t work with contrast, but, on the contrary, we tried to create a situation where old and new can work very seamlessly together, and are sometimes actually merged together so that you cannot tell at any one moment whether you are in a new or an old situation. That was our ambition: to create a kind of seamlessness.

The combination of industrial space and art is a huge cliché, so that was definitely the thing to be at here. By introducing so many spatial variables, the complexity of the architecture will promote an unstable, open programming where art and architecture will benefit from each other’s challenges.
CS: The Fondazione Prada is a vast complex with ten very different buildings of varying scale, but the most visually striking is the gold building at the center. Where did the idea to cover it by hand in gold leaf come from?

RK: It was actually a last-minute inspiration to find a way to give value to a seemingly mundane and simple industrial element. But we discovered that gold is actually a cheap cladding material compared to traditional claddings like marble and even paint. What I love is the way it contaminates the walls around it. Milan is like a pancake with few highrise elements. The environment is so gray that it needed a little color.

CS: Using industrial buildings as art galleries is a common practice today, but you seem to have avoided slipping into the generic white-box art gallery mentality.

RK: I find it surprising that the enormous expansion of the art system has taken place in a reduced number of typologies for art’s display, but here there is less emphasis on hammering down a vision.

What is wonderful about this location is its industrial quality. I think what we have done is different simply because it is a new real engagement with the space. We were really prepared —and this may be one of the most important driving forces with our work in general—to be highly alert to the development of clichés. The combination of industrial space and art is a huge cliché, so that was definitely the thing to be at here. By introducing so many spatial variables, the complexity of the architecture will promote an unstable, open programming where art and architecture will benefit from each other’s challenges. The Tower, for instance, exists simply because our interest here was to develop a repertoire and options for display with different scales of interpretation.

We wanted a real diversity of conditions and it felt important to have a vertical element for various reasons. Somehow, art feels different on the ground than in the air, and what is unique is the varied effect on the artists’ content because of the different levels. Each of the ten stories will have progressively taller floors.

The Fondazione encompasses a veritable townscape consisting of warehouse hangars interwoven with the new buildings. The former are subtly spruced up, indicated by the linear orange markings repeated on their exterior. Elevation changes in the ground variegate the pedestrian’s experience of the compound while demarcating the Fondazione’s important nodes, such as the cinema clad in a mirrored veneer. Touches likes this lend the complex a haunting, almost surrealist dimension.

Courtesy Bas Princen

CS: What is it like working with a fashion brand like Prada?

RK: An architect is nothing without somebody who wants something, and that makes architecture a strange profession because we are essentially passive until someone mobilizes our talents. This is what happened in this case with the founders of Prada.

After 15 years of collaboration, Prada is very confident about what we do, so we don’t have to overcome the typical skepticism that exists between the architect and first-time clients.We have to overcome other forms of skepticism, but not that one. Through Prada, we were in close dialogue with Italian culture, traditions, and obsessions, so it has enabled a deep engagement between our cultures. What was implicit for me from the beginning was to discover the efficiency of fashion. What I think is incredible is how fashion can, in eight hours, organize something sublime when for us it takes eight years. The difference in speed is totally fascinating. And that is only one example of where the collaboration is deeply inspiring. Architecture has an ability to integrate everything that comes at it into a new whole or language. And fashion, to some extent, does the same thing, so, collectively, we have been able to respond critically to what developed in recent decades in terms of culture and techniques.

CS: The Fondazione is intended to accommodate a wide variety of cultural events, including cinema. How did you incorporate this sort of flexibility into your design?

RK: I don’t know if you have seen our project called the Transformer. It was a temporary pavilion in Korea that we designed for Prada. It had to answer to different functions, so what we did was draw ideal plans for each function, like an exhibition, cinema, or art space, and then put the floor plans together in a tetrahedron and wrapped it in the rubber they use to shield airplanes in the desert. The project worked by picking it up by a crane so that each of the ideal plans could becomethe“ground.”Itcouldworkindifferent ways, but each plan was the ideal plan for that particular function. So we were thinking about this here in Milan and we knew there was an interest in performance, which is why we designed the cinema so that the sides open. The plan of the floor extends so the courtyard becomes a stage. In that sense, those are transformations that work with existing conditions but can accommodate an enormous range of different activities.

CS: Your subtle visual blending of indoors and outdoors here is almost Japanese in style.

RK: Of course we benefit enormously from the experience of working in other countries with different sensibilities, and Japan is perhaps the kind of culture that I most relate to and for which I have an enormous amount of respect. That is very deliberate. Here, we divided the site into covered and open-air parts. You will discover streets and plazas for public activities, and that gives the project a wonderful quality that is not only a museum or a place for art, but also a collection of public spaces. Every building is communicating with open space and open air.

Architecture in the past 20 years has been focused far too much on the expression of individual architects. The new Fondazione is not a preservation project and not new architecture. It is about respect for what was here.
CS: You’ve also introduced several new technologies, including the use of aluminum foam, which is usually used by the military, but which you’ve reworked as indoor and outdoor cladding of the Podium building. Where did this idea come from?

RK: As you know, we have an architectural office that is a kind of think tank. The only reason for having it is we felt that, in addition to needing to be a tool of our clients, we must also set our own agenda. In this case, it means we can basically explore issues before anyone asks about them, so we are prepared. We are currently doing that with the exploration of the countryside. I have a hunch that the countryside is changing faster than the city. We are gravitating to a ridiculous situation where half the world has to change dramatically and where the other half stagnates. That is why we felt we should engage it to see if, in a preservations regime, we could actually gain something and kind of model it. This is what I like.

CS: The lighting of the various exhibitions at the Fondazione Prada is exceptional. Why do galleries so often get such a basic requirement wrong?

RK: What they almost always get wrong is that it is so blatant and so repetitive.

CS: One of the three new buildings, the Tower, is still under construction. Can you tell us a little about what we can expect?

RK: I see the Fondazione Prada as a campus; a tool with a vast range of possibilities. The Tower is one such space.

CS: You say you were given a lot of design freedom in the Fondazione Prada brief, so what was the biggest design constraint?

RK: It was probably not to succumb to an overdose of freedom.

CS: How do you respond to criticism directed at your projects?

RK: I think we are living in an age where criticism is not particularly welcome, whether it is political criticism or corporate criticism. It has become a dirty word. For example, you can see the phobia of a bad review, how it causes hysteria and the immediate defensiveness that sets in. I can say that I am kind of really used to bad reviews, so I don’t take them personally, unless they are intended to be personal. On the whole I am really open to criticism, simply because I am of a generation that doesn’t have that kind of fear.

OMA’s design converts a century-old distillery into a series of gallery spaces spread across seven restored structures and three new ones—an exhibition pavilion, cinema, and a yet-to-be completed concrete-and-glass tower.

Courtesy Bas Princen

OMA’s approach to the exhibition pavilions is eclectic, though undeniably modern. (Note the Miesian detail of the vertical beam affixed to the building envelope.)

Courtesy Roland Halbe

Aluminum foam panels line the ceiling of one of the new exhibition halls, forming a grid punctuated by thin LED strips and returns for lighting channels.

Courtesy Charlie Koolhaas

The Fondazione’s inaugural exhibition, the Serial Classic, explores questions of authenticity and imitation in classical antiquity. The lifesize sculptures are mounted on an intricate flooring system designed for the exhibition and composed of travertine, brushed aluminum, and perspex—all exposed along the edges.

Courtesy Attilio Maranzano

The gilded exhibition hall is the central focal point of the Fondazione. Called the Haunted House, the structure’s blank utilitarian features are draped in gold leaf, an ostensibly spontaneous extravagance that Koolhaas post-rationalizes on functionalist grounds. The building towers above the rest of the campus’s open-air spaces and warehouses, which all can be taken in from the Haunted House’s balconies.

Courtesy Bas Princen​

Adjacent to the Haunted House is a new exhibition structure dubbed the Podium. Clad in exquisite aluminum foam, the building cantilevers toward the perimeter wall.

Courtesy Bas Princen​

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