On visiting the Fondazione Prada with Brigitte Lacombe

by Michael Rock
Spring 2015
Published in NeueJournal Issue I

In his millennial manifesto Junkspace, architect Rem Koolhaas proclaimed: "Minimalism is maximalism in drag." When gates of his new headquarters for the Fondazione Prada in Milan finally open in early May of this year, no one will be accusing him of architectural cross-dressing. The new home for Miuccia Prada and Patrizio Bertelli's art collecting organization is unabashedly lush. Literally on the wrong side of the tracks, southeast of central Milan, the site is an early-20th century distillery comprising functional, if somewhat unlovely, stucco buildings forming a quadrilateral compound organized around a central courtyard. Koolhaas preserved the existing structures more-or-less as is: gutted and scrubbed but hardly polished. Against this beige backdrop, he slotted in three elegant new buildings: a spectacular glass and aluminum foam-paneled podium that serves as a grand museum gallery, a mirror finish stainless steel-clad cinema that can be opened on both sides by way of gigantic retractable garage doors, and an eight-story gallery tower in brilliant white concrete. Those large-scale material gestures are augmented with wood-cobbled courtyards, perforated aluminum stairwells, heavy steel street grating repurposed as bathroom walls, and vast floors of gorgeous Iranian travertine. Perhaps the most audacious treatment is reserved for one of the more banal historic buildings. An entire six-story 1918 storage building -- nicknamed the Haunted House for its winding stair and creaking elevator -- is gilt in 24k gold leaf. Koolhaas's Midas touch transforms the banality into something extraordinarily rich and strange. (Prada has enlisted Robert Gober to create site-specific artworks for all the rooms insuring the interior will be as surreal as the skin.) The overall effect of the interlocking forms and textures, and the collision between old and new, is exhilarating, in an entirely un-minimal way.