Diss Talk: Amelia Stevens on the Architecture of Prada

[Although Architecture] may be seen to be rooted in pragmatism, it is a powerful and extraordinarily revealing expression of human psychology [reflecting the] ambitions, insecurities and motivations of those who build.

– An extract from The Edifice Complex: An Architecture of Power

To me, The Edifice Complex by architectural critic Deyan Sudjic, beautifully explains the ways in which buildings throughout history – usually of a patriarchal, political or religious nature – have been carefully and often ruthlessly orchestrated to intimidate their guests. Rather than elaborate external symbols of power, subtle manipulations of architecture have been used to leave guests feeling ‘suitably intimidated.’ Although not reflecting the same ambitions, insecurities and motivations; I was interested in the themes explored in Sudjic’s writings and how they might be applicable to the analysis of many other building types and programmes. Characteristically, I chose to write my dissertation on Prada: an Architecture of Manipulation, and the ways in which luxury brands use architecture to manipulate consumers.

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Prada: An Architecture of Manipulation, Dissertation Title Page

Needless to say, I was not surprised at being turned down by over half a dozen supervisors who, despite being intrigued, felt that they had little to contribute to this unconventional dissertation topic. Whilst the title is intentionally provocative and suggests that my dissertation presents a critical view of Prada, this is somewhat deceptive.  Although ‘manipulation is normally used as a term of disapproval, for the purpose of my dissertation it simply refers to the handling and controlling of architecture and its skilful marketing.

My dissertation begins by presenting the argument that, despite its outward supreme brand confidence, Prada is in fact driven by chronic insecurity – most crucially the perception of fashion as an incurably superficial and frivolous industry. It is for this reason that Prada likes to associate itself with top architects, who essentially lend a sense of intellectual esteem and an illusion of long lasting relevance to the brand, motivated by the financial backing that the billion-dollar fashion industry is able to facilitate. In 2001, Prada made the intelligent decision to place architecture at the centre of its marketing campaign and began its continuing partnership with OMA and its renowned lead architect Rem Koolhaas, which provided the main focus for my dissertation. It was around this time that Koolhaas had just completed a Harvard-based research project on architecture and retail, a perfect example of the intellectual prowess yearned for by Prada. However, it is important to emphasise that it is not the academic validity or originality of the research – which could easily be questioned – that was of interest. Simply put, for Prada it was attractively marketable.

Over the past decades, Prada and OMA have realised a plethora of projects, from ‘Epicenter’ stores and runway stage sets to a cultural foundation, each explored in a separate chapter of my dissertation and accompanied by relevant case studies. Despite great variety amongst the projects, I would argue that there is one prominent and recurrent theme throughout, that being the integration of non commercial activities – such as culture, film and art – into commercial settings. Premised on theories of phenomenology and the distracted nature of human consciousness and perception; ‘hidden advertising’a tool considered so manipulative it is often banned or severely restricted by legislation – is subtly applied to Prada’s architecture. Whilst consumers never fully lose sight of the brand’s overtly commercial purpose, they are sufficiently torn between commerce and culture, making them less cynical and aware of being manipulated.

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Prada, New York, ‘Epicentre Store, OMA and Rem Koolhaas, 2001

A conspicuous example of this is Koolhaas’ first project for Prada, its New York ‘Epicenter’ store which reportedly cost the brand £32 million. The store’s most counterintuitive feature is the preservation of its previous owners, The Guggenheim Museum’s, store frontage which resultantly lacks the signature Prada signage of its traditional stores. This is an attempt at downplaying its commercial function by associating it with culture – the dominant image and idea that confronts the public. This is continued inside the store by its defining feature, a large sculptural wave which would not look out of place as an installation in a Museum. Furthermore, set in the curved side of the wave is a retractable stage used for theatrical performances, conferences, talks and presentations, as well as a retractable screen that allows the space to be used for the presentation of films. The steps, normally used as a display of shoes or mannequin exhibits, instead function as audience seating, transforming the store into an events space. Here, retail is sold as culture.

Less well known case studies throughout my dissertation further support this argument, among them a runway stage set curated with abstract furniture designed by OMA for Knoll and the Fondazione Prada’s Bar Luce designed by Wes Anderson. As with many of its projects, these incite Prada’s critics to ask: is this advertising or art? Of these the most ambiguous examples is Prada Marfa designed by Studio Elmgreen & Dragset, which I used to conclude my dissertation. This is for two main reasons; firstly because it was not commissioned by Prada, and secondly because it is not ‘open for business.’

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Prada Marfa, Studio Elmgreen & Dragset, 2005
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Interior of Prada Marfa, Studio Elmgreen & Dragset, 2005

For those unfamiliar with Prada Marfa, it is a hyperrealistic re-creation of a traditional Prada store, located along Route 90 in the desert of western Texas. Although described by Dazed Digital as ‘a Prada store, with thousands of visitors but no customers,’  this is somewhat misleading. Whilst the store does not sell Prada products, the experience of Prada Marfa and excitement around it created by the media, instead effortlessly and indirectly sell the Prada brand as well as selling Prada Marfa mileage signs to visitors and enthusiasts of the project. The importance here is that this is done without the perception of Prada Marfa as a commercial enterprise. Interested to know more, I wrote to Studio Elmgreen & Dragset who explained:

We made special edition (edition of 10 + 2AP) personalized Prada Marfa signs indicating the miles/kilometers to different locations, in order to fundraise for Prada Marfa itself. This proved to be a fun way to engage people who werent physically in Marfa but still want to be associated with the project. Weve sold ten of the signs for 10,000 EUR each, which covered the initial fabrication costs. In addition, Art Production Fund has unlimited numbers of smaller canvases that we authorized for sale on their website (link: http://www.artproductionfund.org/shop/elmgreen-and-dragset-prada-marfa-sign-prop-art), and all profits from those go to the upkeep of the store.

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Prada Marfa, mileage signage

Whilst the artists are not interested in exploiting this, they may just have created the prototypal concept for the future of luxury retail which would work hand in hand with Prada’s omnichannel business model approach – a store where one cannot actually buy Prada products but that creates an experience so impressionable it makes you want to and, through e-retail, indirectly can. In this way Prada Marfa conceptually epitomises Prada’s branding aspirations and arguably surpasses the brand experience of its ‘Epicenter’ stores, without costing £32 million.

Amelia Stevens is a third-year Architecture undergraduate at Robinson College.


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