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Written by: Jos Maple for AR143 – Culture. Photography courtesy of Fondazione Prada.
Over eight years in the making, the Fondazione Prada’s permanent home in Milan opened in mid-2015. The complex was designed by OMA and is the result of a long-standing relationship between OMA and AMO (the research studio subset of OMA) and the fashion house, Prada. This privately owned gallery cum cultural institution occupies the walled compound of a former distillery. It is located south of Milan’s historical centre at Largo Isarco in a former industrial zone that is sparsely populated, with low-rise housing and corporate headquarters. It is a rather rough and unloved part of the city – ripe for art-based gentrification.
Miuccia Prada and Patrizio Bertelli, owners of the fashion brands Prada and Miu Miu, established Fondazione Prada in 1993. Since its inception, the Fondazione has been an active part of the arts scene in both Milan and Venice, curating and presenting art exhibitions with a particular focus on contemporary Italian artists. The Fondazione has become a much needed contemporary cultural platform that the Italian Government has largely been unable to provide or fund (or is disinterested in doing so).
The Fondazione Prada is part of a growing trend of privately owned cultural institutions being opened in the name of powerhouse fashion brands, such as the Fondation Cartier by Jean Nouvel and, more recently, Frank Gehry’s Fondation Louis Vuitton, in Paris. While there is little doubt that these fashion houses are gaining brand strength through their association with the arts, the benefits of these relationships are twofold. The fashion houses not only provide increasingly stable and supportive patronage to the arts, they are raising the public’s awareness of, and interest in, contemporary architecture practice.
Prada engaged AMO more than a decade ago to provide strategic research into the potential future expansion of the Prada brand, beyond that of a standard fashion label. Following this engagement Prada undertook a series of significant architectural commissions, including Herzog and de Meuron (Prada store, Tokyo, 2003 and Miu Miu store, Tokyo, 2015) and OMA (Prada flagship stores, New York, 2001 and Los Angeles, 2012). AMO has also been integral to numerous experiential runway shows for Prada and Miu Miu, as well as designing many of Prada’s seasonal catalogues.
In the mid-2000s the Fondazione Prada purchased a large parcel of land in Milan to build a permanent space to house its growing art collection and provide a cultural centre for future events. OMA’s project team, headed by Rem Koolhaas and Chris van Duijn, has been heavily involved in shaping the project from its conception. The former industrial complex dates from 1910 in the form of a courtyard to include warehouses, laboratories and brewing silos. It comprises seven existing structures that have been extensively renovated, with three new buildings: the podium, the cinema and the tower. Much like OMA’s Prada store in New York that operates as both fashion store and event space, the new buildings of the Fondazione are transformable and adaptable, allowing the centre to become an exceptionally versatile cultural event space for Milan. The three new structures add to the sense of a village-like mix of buildings, courtyards and streets, off ering respite from the viewing of art and an enjoyable informal gallery experience.
The podium is a glazed Miesian box, with elaborate and rich materiality. The floor is divided into large plates of grey Iranian travertine set on blocks of thick clear acrylic. Each plate has the mechanical means to be raised or lowered to vary the spatial layout. The volume above the podium appears solid; however, it is in fact glazed on the interior, creating introverted vignettes of the Haunted House.
The Haunted House is the photogenic star of the show. An existing three-storey building, it has been caught in a twisted embrace of new buildings and re-skinned in gold leaf. The sun is reflected from its surface and it reflects the surrounding buildings.
Beyond the podium is the cinema, a white concrete shell with polished stainless steel walls. Within this box is a multifunction cinema with mechanically operable sidewalls that can open to the outside, allowing the cinema to operate as a stage for events.
The nine-storey tower is still under construction. Once complete it will define the north-western edge of the complex, with its expanse of flat white planes and play of solid and void. The tower’s floor to ceiling height increases by one-metre increments at each level. The tower will also house a panoramic restaurant at the upper levels. Once open it will offer a new reading of the complex, challenging the haunted house for hero status and offering the visitor the chance to take in the project as a whole.
Two spaces within the existing buildings are the outcome of external contributors: the education space is designed by students at École Nationale Supérieure d’Architecture de Versailles and the café bar is designed by Wes Anderson, the US film director (The Grand Budapest Hotel), a personal commission of Miuccia Prada. The café bar, Bar Luce, recreates the atmosphere of a typical Milanese café, complete with wood panelling, pink terrazzo flooring and the type of wallpaper made famous by Italian design brand, Fornasetti.
Instead of defining the edges of old and new, OMA has blurred the reading of the complex’s history. “So that you cannot tell at any moment whether you are in a new or an old situation,” says Koolhaas. This fresh approach to the industrial heritage of the site has proven a timely testing ground for OMA/AMO’s articulation of preservation, as presented at the 12th International Architecture Exhibition at the Venice Biennale 2010. The Fondazione Prada is loaded with ideas, novel and rich materiality, with an atypical assemblage of volumes and spaces.
However, there is a key OMA feature missing. There is no iconic container or wrapper. The absence of a bounding form appears to add additional charge to the spaces around the buildings. The architectonics of the complex, while still achieving a typically scenographic architectural promenade, allow for a more complex and ambiguous reading of spatial hierarchies than typical OMA work.
Visually tantalising and surprising, the Fondazione Prada avoids an object-like representation, instead presenting a more complex and sensitive approach to its context. This approach could be a timely guiding step for contemporary architecture – a step away from the perceived power of the object in favour of a more culturally potent and relevant architecture. Is OMA perhaps hinting at the end of an era of icons? The Fondazione Prada offers Milan an invigorating variety of gallery and outdoor spaces, more akin to a modern take on a medieval city centre than a contemporary art gallery.
The city has hinted at plans to convert the abandoned railyard opposite the complex into an urban park. However, unlike the Fondazione Prada, Italian Governmental bodies can be notoriously slow to move, so when (or if) the park will eventuate remains to be seen. Will the Fondazione Prada alone be enough to trigger the sequence of art-based gentrification to play out in the surrounding area (more galleries, more cafés, more young creatives)? It’s hard to say, but I for one will happily keep going back to check.