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PRADA Tokyo. Architecture is Architecture

Pedro Pablo Arroyo Alba

From the book Team Hamano & Projects, Hamano Institute, Inc. 2001.
Herzog & de Meuron's new Prada store in Tokyo opened its doors on the last June the 6th, in Omote Sando Street. Just a few blocks away from this location, in Aoyama Street, a clothing shop called "200 days" because of its planned life, had closed down. It was the 5th concentrated event that the group "kisouzoku" (1), whose motto was "fashion, not war; flowers, not stones" organized back in 1968. The leader of this group of "eccentrics" was Yasuhiro Hamano, a graduated in Film Production and Direction from Nihon University, who was studying marketing in the US while Tokyo celebrated the Olympic Games. In 1970, Hamano wrote the book "Fashion Oriented Society", in which he foresees: "all commodities are to be fashion commodities; all industries are to be fashion industries; all business must be fashion business".

This person will be probably unknown for most of the readers, but those somehow familiar with Tokyo would understand the far-reaching influence of an architectural producer and urban animator who is behind projects such as: the department stores designed by Tadao Ando during the seventies, the Japanese works of Michael Graves in the eighties and Jon Jerde in the nineties, or the concept development of new business and residential districts in the bays of Kobe and Tokyo (Makuhari) and Yokohama. In this last one we can find collaborations with Ettore Sottsass. Furthermore, first-magnitude commercial successes of the Japanese capital as Tokyu Hands, Takeshita Street, and Q-Front, count among his team's three hundred and some other diverse projects, which include product design and development, exhibition planning, and mass media activities (2).

In 1972, Yasuhiro Hamano launched the transformation of the area of Aoyama into a world-class fashionable zone, with the Omote Sando Street as the main axis, thus rivaling and displacing the traditional shopping focus outside the streets of Ginza. Since then, Tokyo's particular version of Milan's Via Montenapoleone, is synonymous of international brand names, with new stores opening every few months. In most of the cases, there is an attempt for coupling relevant members of the architectural scene and the fashion industry. Tadao Ando and Collezione, Future Systems and Comme De Garsons, Tokujin Yoshioka and A-Poc Issey Miyake, Jun Aoki and Louis Vuiton (recently finished), Kazuyo Sejima and Christian Dior (in progress), are some examples of a world-wide trend that seems to have acquired special relevance in the last decade.

The "Prada Universe" has taken this phenomenon beyond the limits of any strategy seen until now, since in 1999 the firm approached OMA/Rem Koolhaas and its research spin-off AMO to redefine the shopping experience. The target is "to reshape both the concept and function of shopping, pleasure and communication, to encourage the meshing of consumption and culture". Just about to finish the Harvard GSD Guide to Shopping, Rem Koolhaas extended the insights from the research about the evolution of commercial spaces into a proposal of several Prada "epicenters" around the world. While AMO works on the media content, the website (3), and collaborates with more than twenty other companies for developing the "in-store technology", OMA is designing the three stores in the USA: New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles.

On march the 10th of 2001, an exhibition called "work in progress" showcased the complete and expanding Prada Universe for the first time, presenting the projects of the stores, offices and factories through the drawings, samples of the experimental materials and colors, photographs, posters, models, full-scale reproductions of structural elements and furnishing, slide projections, video tapes and films. On one side, the proposals by Rem Koolhaas and his teams; on the other, the designs of Herzog & de Meuron's for the American headquarters in New York, the Italian production center in Terranuova, and the Japanese shop in Tokyo (4). After the completion of the first shop in New York, Prada Tokyo is the second epicenter physically in place, 2800 m2 of store, ready to start redefining the shopping experience. At least, this is the theory.

From www.superfuture.com.
"Prada represents for us a new type of client who is interested in a new type of architecture, one that involves an exchange of experience, that participates in a cultural debate. This is not the typical client-architect relationship, in the sense that it goes beyond the traditional boundaries of architecture and fashion" (extract from the press release "Projects for Prada: Works in Progress"). Indeed, the affinities between the Swiss and the Italian firms go far before this collaboration and despite any personal preference granted by Patrizio Bertelli. Following almost a parallel path, Miuccia Prada, Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron are born in the same year, 1950. Friends from university, the architects set their office in 1978, the very same year in which Miuccia and her husband took over the family-run business of high quality goods and accessories. Prada's first ready-to-wear collection dates from 1989, whose characteristics were acclaimed by the international critic and became almost the trademark of the company: the inventive use of out-of-context materials and technologically innovative fabrics. This description might be applied as well to the cooper stripped cladding of the signal box that H&dM designed also in 1989. As Toyo Ito puts it: "one of the fairly major changes of contemporary architecture, the discovery of a new materiality, through extraordinary preoccupation with surfaces" (5). There are coincidences also on the negative side. Some fashion critics have described Prada's designs as a minimalist reinvention of the seventies style, while the architectural counterparts describe H&dM's projects as the minimalist, abstract updates of Robert Venturi's "decorated shed".

Another theoretical reference, Semper's archetypical explanation of the origin of the wall as a cloth that hangs between two poles, is brought upon very often by architectural authors to anchor the design attitude of H&dM's. Their preoccupation with architectural surfaces, mainly facades, is used for criticizing the little interest of the interior spaces in their projects. In principle, it seems that the project for Prada would have been the perfect commission to deepen their personal epithelial experimentation.

From www.superfuture.com.
However, the architects produced their most three-dimensional building to date, where their particular definition of "firmitas" as stability though complex multi-sensorial impressions is explored until the last consequences. Whereas the redefinition of the shopping experience in the case of OMA's shop in New York rests mainly in the "digital" interaction among customers, radio frequency identified items, and ubiquitous screens, H&dM's project for Tokyo presents a highly tactile, more than visual, one-to-one phenomenological catalogue, faithful to the "analog" definition of "architecture for the senses" that has guided their practice.

In Tokyo, the only effect that remains from the interactive changing rooms of New York is the Privalite glass vertical partitions, which change from transparent to opaque-white when stepping on a button built in the floor. Being in Japan, where people are used to take their shoes off and infrared sensors normally allow the use of a whole public facility almost without touching anything, the effect is a bit frustrating with your shoes on, and not very sophisticated itself. Neither the several touch-screens that hung from the ceiling here and there with the aim of inviting customers to browse their databases impress anybody. For such a fetishist clientele as the Japanese, there is nothing like the "hon-mono", the "real-thing", the one that you can touch, try on, and look at. Thanks to the standard, regular mirrors of the shop, you are exposed to everybody's eyes. After all, and especially if one takes into account the ceremonial behavior of the Japanese sale assistants, this ritual is as part of the fashion worshiping as it is wearing the garments in the street. Gadget-wise, the tentacle-like bulky lcd monitors have difficulties attracting the everyday users of "q-vga poly-silicon oled active matrix" video-screen equipped mobile telephone handsets. Even the large size images that spanned several floors in the first published collages had disappeared; in the process of materializing the project form the proposal stage to the final building. They have been substituted by small and very timid projections.

From www.superfuture.com.

From www.superfuture.com.
Instead of using anecdotic imaginary, Prada Tokyo wants to enhance our shopping experience via the juxtaposition of opposed material qualities and the experimentation with surprising effects. Both the design of Prada' clothes, complements, and H&dM's shelves, furniture, lighting fixtures, are intermingled into a sensual landscape: lacquer, fur, molded fiberglass, leather, resin encrusted with fiber-optics, porous oak, perforated sheets of stainless steel, cotton, conglomerated rigid foam, nylon, ...It is not only the mix of the hyper-natural and the hyper-artificial, as it is described by the architects, but the almost perverse coexistence of tight and loose, warm and cold, smooth and rough, hairy and bold, hard and soft, applied indistinguishably to a dissolution of fashion and architectural features.

Among these material features, the glass envelope of the building deserves especial study. Its sculptural quality is already clear in the conceptual plastic models of the building. According to the memory of the project, the vibration effect of the surface is made possible because of "the combination of convex, flat and concave panels over a rhomboid-shaped grid. These different geometries generate faceted reflections, which enable viewers to see constantly changing pictures and almost cinematographic perspectives of Prada products, the city and themselves". I'm afraid this is both a wrong explanation and a miscalculation.

First of all, to separate the glass modules from the diagonal grid is lowering the ontological complexity of the façade to the sum of its constructive components, like it would be erroneous to split the stone tracery from the stained glass within a gothic church. In the Tokyo store, the glass tessellate are set next to each other on the outer side of the plane, without gaps, thus transferring to the final building the same material continuity that the plastic model had. Curiously, the diagonal grid is a supporting decision that consciously or not, feels like a Japanese vernacular solution, since ninety per cent of the window glazing in Tokyo has similar geometrical pattern for the reinforcement detailing against earthquake action.

From "a+u" 2001, 12 (Fashionable Architecture).

From El Croquis 109/110 (H&dM 1998-2002).

Photo Pedro Pablo Arroyo Alba.

From "a+u" 2001, 12 (Fashionable Architecture).

From "a+u" 2002, 2 (H&dM).

From "a+u" 2002, 2 (H&dM).
To my understanding, the issue is the emergence of singularities at different scales, not the change of the concept. The size of the plastic model needs no structural elements. For the dimensions of a window, a lattice of wires or lead profiles is needed in Japan. The complete façade of a building requires that those filaments increase their section. It doesn't matter if they are noticeable outwards the surface of the glass, or whether they are built before it, the concept behind the three cases is always the same: the membrane. One more characteristic supports this argument: the connections between the diagonals of the grid are done with curved transitions. This contributes to a stiffer hyper-static structural behavior, and also underlines the concept of the membrane, by readdressing the perception of the façade towards the ambiguous territory of not knowing whether the surface is made with bars, or the rhomboids are melted down inwards and outwards from a large, thick glass plate.

I said before that H&dM gave an incorrect forecast on the membrane's visual qualities. My intention when using the gothic reference is twofold: the analogy explains the phenomenological "firmitas" of the façade, and also it expresses its visual properties. Needless to say that the glass membrane allows the natural lighting of interior spaces, but like the gothic cathedral, it is "opaque". No matter the size of the glass, the convex and concave curvatures always produce a considerable amount of glare, that prohibits the adequate visualization of scenes inside the building. Looking inside out, the effect is not the planned cinematographic sequence of reflections, but rather a collection of simultaneous viscous deformations of what lays at the other side of the glass, like the iconographic information of the stained glass adapts to fill the area within the outline of the gothic window without any compositional prejudices.

From El Croquis 109/110 (H&dM 1998-2002).
If we compare the preliminary sketches of the project's section with some pictures showing the way in which a full-scale mock-up of the façade was placed at the construction site, we can appreciate an important contradiction. The architects set the concave curvature of the membrane facing the viewer's position and this criterion (curve inside the shop at the street level, curve outside the shop in the upper levels) is respected throughout the building process, in which the shelf function of the façade is abandoned. Nevertheless, the in-situ preview of the glass is made against the convex side. Although the reflective quality of the building wasn't obtained, or perhaps never looked for, the elasto-plastic positive-negative visual deformation of the flat and curved glass combination tenses this "tactile membrane" much more than one single solution carried out over the whole container. H&dM learned about this effect from their previous St. Jacob Park Soccer Stadium project.

Although they insist on saying that each project presents a unique problem for which they try to give a unique solution, this is not the only auto-reference that we find in Prada Tokyo. Looking to the on-going research at their office in Basel, we can link the ceiling detail of the ceiling lighting fixtures in Tokyo with the experiments on computer-generated pixel-deformation of perforated metal sheets for the New Museum of Young (6).

Once the tactile membrane is conceptually built, the rest of the building's tectonic organization is immediate: several horizontal slabs, which don't cover the complete floor area so there is a dynamic section with interlocking double high spaces; and various vertical communication cores, which connect them.

Just like this, the building would have been just a nice wrapping again, around a luxurious market. However, to those criticizing their previous interior spaces, H&dM demonstrate here that they are able to design three-dimensionally. Without any doubt, the most interesting architectural devices of the building are the rhomboid-section horizontal tubes that run along the free edge of the floors, and intersect opposite planes of the membrane. It is true that they stiffen the structure, but their static participation is redundant. It could be even a problem, if they were not attached to the floors, because they would flexion-strain the structural membrane that works at its best resisting forces contained within its plane.

The collaboration among the façades, the floor plates and the vertical cores would be enough to guarantee the complete structural stability of the building. More important than any structural consideration, these horizontal tubes introduce volumetric complexity, a new layer of more private spaces, personal scale, which are emptied of the exhibition function of the rest of the shop. Randomly placed at every floor, their sincere form suggests also a geological folding of the exfoliated slabs, in which we seem to enter. In a building where ambiguity reigns, floors couldn't stay passive: the tubes make the floor slabs thinner; the plates make the tubes lighter. Accordingly, the presence of the vertical cores is also alleviated, by covering them with a corrugated skin that extends its folds to act as shelves. Others might say that the shape that we see is eroded from a previous large pillar and its interior excavated to allow transportation up and down.

Outside the shop, we have "a house and a square". The magnitude of the project is modest, because the floor-area of the site is not very generous, but nothing else is needed for the shop. As H&dM describe it, its proportions do correspond more to a domestic compound than a tower, as it is presented normally. The architects' predilection for polyedric volumes when designing houses is well known (Blue House, House in Leymen, Wood House). In Tokyo, they found another vernacular alliance that justifies the form: the shadow control regulations. They establish the angles to be respected in order to assure enough natural lighting of the streets. H&dM concentrated the volume at one corner of the site and used the limit shadow planes to carve the roof of the house. By doing this, they could also liberate a large portion of the site. The open space doesn't have the urban character of the expected square, but more the domestic scale of a front yard, which is actually the roof of the basement floor, accessible directly through a dedicated entrance. The sponge, grass-covered topography of the yard becomes the perfect counterpoint to a glass membrane that sinks slightly in it.

Everything looks so carefully thought out as a ambivalent entity in delicate, complex sensorial equilibrium, that it is very interesting to think about the possibility of altering the disposition of the parameters involved, and see what happens with the overall balance: what carpet material and color would be most adequate for the next fashion collection, what clothes are impossible to show in the store, whether the glass panels are meant to be rearranged depending of the interior distribution of furniture, whether the shop management plans to dress sale assistants according to the length of the grass in the square outside, and so on.

From www.designboom.com.

From "a+u" 2002, 2 (H&dM).

This process of continuing asking about the network of perceptual relations goes down to the center of H&dM' definition of the term "firmitas", to question its validity: what are the elements I cannot dispense with, and still keep the same stability through phenomenological experience?

From www.designboom.com.

From "a+u" 2001, 12 (Fashionable Architecture).

We can find the answer to this question in the intermediate models of the project, in section: only a third of the glass envelope, half of the total diagonal grid, the floors cut throughout the building, a mere dozen furniture and lost customers trying to find the last clothes. This could be enough. Prada Tokyo as a ruin. There is nothing that tells us what sort of building the ruin was, about the activities inside it, whether it was a shopping experience that never was redefined, or offices, theatres, loft dwelling, or a restaurant complex. It doesn't matter: "Architecture is Architecture", as H&dM like to quote one of their masters, Aldo Rossi. Almost collapsing, the building would be perfectly "firm".

Back again to 1968. Arata Isozaki's first exhibition outside Japan wasn't opened to the public. During the press conference of the 14th Triennale di Milano, thousands of protesters, mostly intellectuals, entered the Triennale area and occupied it for ten days.

From "GA architect", 6 (Arata Isozaki).

It was time of cultural revolutions. The installation wasn't recuperated until 2002, with the occasion of the exhibition "iconoclash", at the ZKM of Karlsruhe. This exhibition moved recently to The Castello di Rivoli, Museum of Modern Art of Torino (7).

From "GA architect", 6 (Arata Isozaki).

From www.heise.de.

The basic idea of the exhibit was the antinomy inherent in the planning process: every ideal concept or logical plan is ultimately betrayed and overthrown by man's irrational impulses. The installation has two parts. First, a group of 16 curved revolving vertical aluminum panels, which bottled up inside human beings in high-density urban spaces. Fragments of Japanese expressions of ill were printed on the panels, which could be turned by hand or in response to signals from an infrared counter. Second, one large horizontal panel on the wall shows the ruin structures of a future city mounted on the ruins of Hiroshima. A ruined structure on the ruins, that Isozaki titled "the city of the future is the ruins". This scene provides the background for three projectors that overlap the countless radiant and optimistic images depicted by the Japanese architects in the early sixties (8).

Isozaki's "store" has been opened for less than 200 days, selling the products of a society in crisis. His architectural proposal is sharpened by the path of the bombs instead of by the angles of the sunshine. The mirrors of the nine interactive fitting rooms reflect perhaps our permanent decay, analog or digitally operated. It might be that the future of the city is a continuous ruin, but Prada Tokyo demonstrates that the future of a ruin might be a beautiful building.

Pedro Pablo Arroyo Alba


(1) In Japanese, "strangely-dressed crowd"
(2) Hamano is also responsible of the introduction of the miniskirt in Japan.
(3) www.prada.com is still under construction!
(4) The Japanese office SANAA (Sejima & Nishizawa) were suppose to design the beauty shops within the new epicenters.
(5) Toyo Ito, Beyond the New Materiality, published in "A+U", February 2002
(6) H&dM's next projects abandon the ready-made technique of de-contextualizing existing textures in favor of a highly naïve-risk adventure of fabricating textural effects.
(7) From April 16th to August 24th, 2003.
(8) Adapted from Electric Labyrinth, "GA Architects", 6.

Pictures by Pedro Pablo Arroyo Alba and Johanna Truestedt except where indicated.

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