What Comes after Prada?
What Comes after Prada?
by Frank Kaltenbach, Mar, 2004 [View PDF]
Detail: You have just been in China with Rem Koolhaas.
Scheeren: We are planning the extension of a bookshop in Beijing.
Detail: Apart from the location, it sounds like a conventional assignment.
Scheeren: Not exactly. The existing sales area comprises 40,000 m2 and is already too small, a further 40,000 m2 are to be added. These dimensions would be inconceivable in any other country.
Detail: What strategies are you applying so that customers do not lose their orientation in such a large shop?
Scheeren: We are cutting two multi-storey arcades through the building to create comprehensible sub-units. At their point of intersection a semi-public space gives access to the various areas. In a sense, the building is turned inside out, with facades in the form of transparent bookshelves.
Detail: Do you think it is all right for foreign companies to shape the cities of this new China?
Scheeren: In principle, I see the increasing building activities of foreign offices there somewhat critically. You constantly have to question your own role. But there are also things one can contribute as an outsider; for example, a consciousness of public space as well as the development of new construction techniques.
Detail: OMA is well-known not just for its architecture, but for its holistic solutions in creating brand images – for Prada, for example. How did that come about?
Scheeren: Prada first approached OMA in the spring of 1999. The succinct message of Miuccia Prada and Patrizio Bertelli was that their firm could not continue to conduct business as previously, since it had undergone an incredible expansion at the end of the 1990s, growing from a small family business to a global fashion empire. They were looking for someone who could conceptualize this enormous growth. Initially, of course, we also discussed the design of new shops; yet it was clear to us that in order to formulate a new beginning, the overall concept had to embrace much broader issues – including general developments in shopping and the position in society of Prada as a brand.
Detail: How did you proceed? Did you consult marketing experts?
Scheeren: Since we are not experts in the “commercial” sector, we started with a two and- a-half-month research phase to investigate Prada. Like tourists, we went to take a look at the existing shops and production centers. It was interesting to observe this brand with a certain naivety, and to try to understand not just the principles of shop design, but the underlying functions that go on behind the scenes – back-of-house functions. It was not easy to gain information; Prada wanted us to develop our own view of things in a largely independent process.
Detail: What conditions did the client impose?
Scheeren: Almost none – much to our surprise. Initially, there wasn’t even a spatial program, just the abstract formulation of an overall concept.
Detail: Why did Prada choose your practice for this task?
Scheeren: You should really ask Prada. But I think it was a combination of things: our own analytical work, together with the buildings we have realized to date. This project called not only for the development of an abstract overall concept, but also for the design and architecture for flagship stores in New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Tokyo.
Detail: What is the difference between the flagship stores of other brands and the Prada “epicentres”?
Scheeren: The flagship stores that emerged in the 1990s were not much more than an enlargement of what already existed – in other words more of the same – without offering anything beyond a larger scale. Our concept was not aimed at reinforcing the identity of the brand or restricting it in any way – on the contrary, we intended to expand and diversify it. That was how the term “epicentre” came about; it describes the effect of change that a store may have on its surroundings. At the same time we didn’t want to eliminate the generic quality of the existing Prada shops, but to maintain them as a carefully developed selling tool. The epicentres were introduced against this background of uniformity as specific focal points representing the brand in a broader sense and allowing a different form of shopping.
Detail: The New York shop was completed two years ago and has been something of a sensation – not only among architects, designers and shop owners. Can you describe the design concept more precisely?
Scheeren: Before Prada acquired these spaces, our shop was part of the Guggenheim Museum. Culturally speaking, the entire district of Soho was once an extremely lively and a largely public area. More and more, however, it had been taken over by commercial interests and functions. We wanted to offer an alternative to this process of commercialization and open up the space to the public again: luxury as generosity – or even waste. For that reason, we designated the main space of the shop a “street”, a space for alternative uses, where various events could take place. For this purpose, the cage-like showcases can be slid aside on rails, and a stage can be folded out of the wave-shaped floor, transforming the steps opposite into an auditorium.
Detail: That sounds all very democratic. But isn’t it also a piece of calculated marketing strategy, with which Prada hopes to attract new clients who have hitherto not spent so much money on fashion?
Scheeren: Certainly there is an element of commercial calculation in it; that lies in the nature of the project. It would be senseless to deny this. It wasn’t our intention to design simply a manifestation of culture. We wanted to create a shop that would also function as such. Who says that shopping is no fun or that it is something bad?
Detail: In those parts of the shop that are not generally accessible are VIP areas for an exclusive circle of “Prada 500” clients. Do they really shop there, or are potential customers scared away by the masses of onlookers?
Scheeren: The interesting fact is that the shop embraces all these segments. Stars shop there, and people who buy themselves a coffee at Dean and Deluca’s opposite also come and sit on Prada’s steps to drink it and chat with friends. At the same time, the shop is Prada’s second-best selling outlet. In other words, it also functions on a commercial level.
Detail: Is it still possible at all to create a sense of exclusiveness and luxury when there is virtually no difference any more between the design of various fashion stores?
Scheeren: At a time when shopping has taken over all areas of life, and no public function exists any more without shopping, shopping itself can no longer be conceived as a luxury. New qualities need to be developed to create a sense of exclusiveness.
Detail: There has been a lot of criticism from different sources.
Scheeren: Architecture that expresses certain aspirations and adopts a position inevitably leads to controversial discussions. It’s still interesting to see just how euphorically, but also dismissively, the public and the press react to our projects.
Detail: What role does information technology (so-called “IT devices”) play in the epicenters – the technological tools that link staff and customers with a virtual sales world?
Scheeren: It’s an important part of the overall concept. The in-store technology is used to exploit the scope of both realms in a conceptual and strategic way and to play them off against each other. In other words, the virtual realm has certain qualities that physical space can never possess, and vice versa. Architecture takes a long time to be realized or to undergo modifications; and its design scope is limited. Technology complements the role of physical space and extends its functional and expressive potential. It provides staff with systems that enable a better organization of the selling process. At the same time, it acts as a kind of aura machine by communicating additional content, which may, of course, be more controversial, since it is subject to different laws from physical space.
Detail: A greater use of in-store technology could lead to a situation where sales assistants will be replaced altogether one day. Does that not contradict the idea of perfect service, which you defined as one of your six key concepts for Prada?
Scheeren: It was the opposite approach. Complete self-service cannot be the answer in the luxury sector. The most important component is personal interaction, and that also applies to retailing. A good sales person will always offer more than a vending machine can. We seek to use technology to support the sales staff and to provide additional functions, such as making available a list of items in stock without the assistant having to go away from the customer. Or the sales person can blend in videos of fashion shows relating to specific articles of clothing.
Detail: The technology is used with great restraint.
Scheeren: It is meant to remain optional and not to dominate the physical space and become an unavoidable media spectacle.
Detail: In positioning the video screens, you used various associative ideas such as the triptych, the peep show and the family photo standing on an office desk. Are these meant to show that Prada is for everyone – people of religious persuasion, night owls and hardworking office staff?
Scheeren (laughing): We liked the idea of installing a “confessional for fashion victims” in the shop. Also the voyeuristic aspects of fashion are undeniably interesting . . .
Detail: There is a sexy look present in the videos and a lot of your books, too.
Scheeren: I don’t think it’s about a sexy look, but something much more controversial. Using media, one can approach certain topics in a much more playful manner than with architectural means. We were also interested in the provocative aspects. You can find information about Prada fakes – pirate copies of the firm’s articles. There is an at/as that shows the distribution systems for the legal production and compares it with the black market . . .
Detail: Are you also responsible for the contents of the videos, the selection and juxtaposition of images?
Scheeren: Yes. AMO is constantly involved in editing and creating the aura production. The work goes far beyond the videos alone; it includes advertising campaigns, fashion shows and a Prada web site.
Detail: What is it that interests you about these aspects?
Scheeren: The scope for making a far more comprehensive statement than would be possible with architecture alone. This requires a constant observation of Prada, its ambience, the influence it has on society and vice versa. I think it’s one of the special features of this project that we were able to develop and integrate spatial, virtual and social aspects.
Detail: In other words, your work does not end with the completion of the stores?
Scheeren: That’s right. An intense relationship has developed between Prada and OMN AMO. We are in the process of developing the second phase of the new concept.
Detail: The New York shop burst like a bombshell in the media. Was this success planned from the outset? Was your main focus on media coverage?
Scheeren: The media excitement was maybe predictable in part, but it was not of primary interest. The starting point was experimental work on the sales space and the image of Prada itself: a laboratory in which it was not certain whether all things we conceived would work in the end . . .
Detail: The epicentre in Los Angeles will open in July this year. How much will it have in common with the others?
Scheeren: From the beginning, the question was how much of the epicentres would have to be the same. Developing a successful brand image requires a constant flow of new ideas, but also a certain continuity and stability. In our shops, there is a series of direct references to earlier Prada concepts. At certain points, we adopt the traditional green coloration, or the black-and-white marble flooring of the first Prada shop in Milan. There are also cross references between our own projects. In the Los Angeles shop, for example, we have deliberately reflected aspects of the New York store, since both cities have a specific relationship as the two centers on the opposite coasts of the United States. Also the spatial parameters are similar: both shops belong to a horizontal typology – New York comprises two storeys; Beverly Hills three. To create a flowing transition between the two main levels, we have readopted the concept of the warping floor. In Los Angeles, the wave-like form does not lead downwards; it is in the form of a hill that supports a floating aluminium box on top.
Detail: Can you describe more about both stores?
Scheeren: The building in New York is listed, so it was not possible to make any changes extemally. In Beverly Hills, the facade – or rather the absence of a facade – plays a major role. Instead of creating a performance space, here the architectural opening to the street provides a means of establishing a relationship with the public. The mild climate allows the outer skin to be completely dissolved and the shop to be opened up across the full 17-metre width of its street front. Rodeo Drive consists of a series of shops with portico motifs in granite and travertine that all attempt to assert presence. Our design seeks to do the opposite by simply cutting an opening in the existing fabric.
Detail: You mean there is not even a thin glazed facade?
Scheeren: During the day, there’s nothing, the street front is completely open. Appropriate security measures were taken against theft, and there are sensitive air curtains that allow thermal control of the indoor climate in the event of bad weather. At night, a wall rises from the ground over the full width of the shop, hermetically closing it off. Only the horizontal display windows are then still visible.
Detail: What innovative features will there be in the sales space?
Scheeren: We have developed a new material that we call “sponge”. It is a hybrid somewhere between air and matter, and completely synthetic. It was important to us that our research should not concentrate entirely on information technology and visual language, but should also help to develop tactile materials and forms of construction. We wanted to add something new to the range of materials used in interior deSign, something that could become a further element of Prada’s identity.
The “sponge” is a very porous substance that allows light to shine through, but it can also be used to hang clothes. The entire perimeter inside the aluminium box will be lined with this material.
Detail: Some of the technology tools were not quite perfect. Have you made improvements?
Scheeren: Of course there has been an ongoing development after the laboratory in New York. In the dressing rooms, we have simplified a lot of the functional processes; and the operation of the technology by the staff has been more clearly structured. But there are also new features in Los Angeles: Where the stair “hill” penetrates the aluminium box is a large opening enclosed in “Privalite” glass. The changing cabins have been integrated in these glass walls, forming a spatial entity that can be switched transparent or translucent in response to the number of customers in the store, acoustic signals or movements . . .
Detail: Were the simplifications you made partly a response to a tighter budget? One read in the press that the New York shop cost $40 million.
Scheeren: These figures have to be seen in relation to the comparative construction costs per square metre of floor area, which were at an average level for high-end retail outlets. In the case of Prada, the additional cost of the technology accounted for much of the outlay. In the first development stage, large sums were invested in research and the construction of prototypes.
Detail: In San Francisco, in your third Prada shop, you would have had an opportunity to build vertically on a larger scale. Has this project been abandoned, or can you realize the ideas elsewhere?
Scheeren: Unfortunately, the project in San Francisco will not be built. That is final. It’s a great pity, because the relationship between these three shops was important. They weren’t conceived in isolation, but in relation to each other. San Francisco was planned as the West Coast headquarters of Prada. Since 1 1 September 2001, much has changed in the world and also the Prada projects have not escaped unscathed.
Detail: In the meantime, Herzog & de Meuron have created a vertically organized epicentre in Tokyo. Are there any points in common, apart from the technology and its content, that was adopted there?
Scheeren: During our research phase, we considered all four locations – New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Tokyo – and developed the initial ideas before Herzog & de Meuron took on the planning for Tokyo. At the outset, there were a number of meetings to discuss concepts; yet at the same time it was about ensuring independence and diversification. The media content is one of the common elements that ties the projects together.
Detail: Would you be interested in planning a project jointly with Herzog & de Meuron?
Scheeren: We did plan a project jointly: the hotel on Astor Place, New York, for lan Schrager, which in the end wasn’t built. At the moment, both offices are active in Beijing, but working on separate buildings.
Detail: You are used to working on a larger scale now. Will the CCTV tower in Beijing really be built?
Scheeren: On 8 January, we received final approval for the structural engineering, and the planning is progressing rapidly. The building complex for the Chinese television organization CCTV contains TV studios, news and broadcasting centres, training areas, offices, etc. , all with a high concentration of technical installations. The theatre alone is as big as our Casa de Musica in Oporto, which will be opened in the autumn.
Detail: The form bears a certain resemblance to schemes by El Lissitzky, whose work Rem Koolhaas has studied closely.
Scheeren: The most important parallels with the Russian Constructivists lie in the realm of the Utopian. CCTV is a Utopia on both a constructive as well as a social level that is being realized.
Detail: Did you work with Chinese engineers who were familiar with local conditions?
Scheeren: Of course, we work very closely with our Chinese partner office. The conceptualization and complex calculation of the structure were a collaboration with Arup. The most crucial difficulty of the engineering process lay in the fact that the Chinese authority responsible for granting approval was not qualified enough to check the calculations. A team of 13 leading engineers from all parts of China was formed specifically for this purpose.
Detail: So you are providing some kind of development aid?
Scheeren: The technical know-how on the part of the Chinese is increasing rapidly from project to project. To establish a dialogue between the two cultures, 12 Chinese colleagues came to work for a year in our office in Rotterdam, before we sent a team of our own to Beijing to supervise the project there. The challenge presented by complex projects of this kind lies not only in the field of building technology, but in the differences in culture – both sides have to leam from each other.
Detail: That applies to your own office as well, presumably?
Scheeren: Our office has changed fundamentally over the years. Often in the past, our work did not go beyond conceptual competitions or studies. Today, we are involved in building. There are four partners who divide the responsibilities between them. At present, we have roughly 100 employees.
Detail: To what extent can you ensure your design intentions are implemented during the execution of your buildings?
Scheeren: That depends on the project. Since we work almost entirely abroad, we have to rely on local architects who are legally responsible for the execution of the work and who often also do the detailing. In most cases, a larger group from our office works with our partners, monitoring the planning and execution of the work. Today, we are increasingly taking on the entire set of construction drawings ourselves, as is the case with the Netherlands’ embassy in Berlin.
Detail: The conceptual competence of Rem Koolhaas and OMA is undisputed, but the office is often criticized for its construction details. Are you interested in details at all?
Scheeren: Of course we are interested in details – more than you may think. The fact that we have developed a conceptual language that reveals itself in the details is often overlooked. We are not interested in designing technocratically perfect connections, but in a much more direct, perhaps sometimes brutal, means of jointing things. One should take a closer look at the projects we are building now, including those for Prada.
Detail: Have the Prada projects had a general influence on your office?
Scheeren: The most important effect was the founding of AMO. Prada was the first independent assignment for AMO and led to a clearer definition of its goals and activities.
Detail: What does AMO stand for?
Scheeren: The letters don’t really stand for anything specific. It is a playful inversion of OMA – a virtual mirror image, so to speak. It is the name for our research department in which we develop theoretical principles, from social theories to information technologies. AMO developed the media content for Prada.
Detail: The activities of AMO have increased considerably.
Scheeren: We not only carry out research parallel to our own architectural schemes. We also undertake independent projects, like the studies we have made for the European Union or for Conde-Nast, and our guest editorship of the magazine “Wired”.
Detail: Don’t you work for African states, too?
Scheeren: Lagos and Nigeria were one of the studies Rem Koolhaas carried out with the Harvard Group. Quite apart from actual architectural commissions, the connection between Harvard and AMO has enabled us to make contacts in all parts of the world.
Detail: OMA buildings reveal themselves to be a testing ground for theories implemented in practice. If you are building so much, won’t you run out of theories soon?
Scheeren: There will be no shortage of theories – since the world is constantly changing, one has to find ever new answers. With the construction of CCTV in Beijing, we are involved in an ongoing process of modernization that is progressing with incredible speed and that implies drastic changes. In the belief that this contribution is not enough in itself, we are also undertaking a study of preservation in Beijing, in other words next to our engagement in progress we are dealing with issues of history and the past.
Detail: You spoke of a second phase of the Prada concept that is just starting. Is that related to China?
Scheeren: While our first two epicentres are in the Western world, the second phase will be oriented more towards the East, and that certainly includes China. It is clear that this culture now has an influence on all areas of our society – this is visible even in the latest collections of the fashion industry . . .
Detail: Thank you for this interview.