Fondazione Prada

By Nina Tory-Henderson

Bas Princen

A new art space for Fondazione Prada located in a former industrial complex may sound like the cliché of the 21st century gallery. It is, however, anything but.

The collaboration between Prada and OMA spans the past 15 years. Within this time they have produced flagship stores, catwalks that verge on theatre performances, and a shape-shifting pavilion in Seoul. It could be the trust and understanding forged throughout this unusually long client-architect relationship that has resulted in the incredible Fondazione Prada — that, or the undisclosed budget and almost decade-long design process. Whatever the reason, it is undoubtedly the zenith of the collaboration between these two cultural powerhouses.

The site lies in a sparse southern neighborhood of Milan. Fondazione Prada sits within stucco walls topped with terracotta roofs, an unassuming presence within the local context. The only hint of what lies within its borders is a simple industrial ‘tower’ clad in gold leaf, only just revealing itself to the street, peeking above the terracotta roofs.

Fondazione Prada is not a conventional museum or gallery, but rather a cultural institution that displays and explores the foundation’s main interest — ideas — in whatever form they manifest themselves: art, literature, cinema, music, philosophy, science. The site hosts an agglomeration of programs including children’s workshops, residencies, rehearsal spaces, a theater, a cinema, and a library in addition to the gallery spaces. Wandering through the new and existing buildings scattered across the site, which hums with a variety of activities, the atmosphere is more that of a campus than a gallery – there is an overall sense of exploration and research.

Fondazione Prada will not be a museum, but rather the continuation of an intellectual process founded on the exploration of doubt and on extensive research.
— Miuccia Prada

In parallel to the client’s vision, OMA’s main design objective was to counteract today’s limited gallery typology. They have achieved this through thorough site analysis, exploiting existing conditions to create a variety of gallery typologies, with some buildings barely altered. In an old grain silo, the original chambers are used as three large exhibition spaces, each housing a single artwork. The existing ‘tower’, shimmering in its new gold-leaf skin, offers more intimate, almost domestic scale-spaces that you climb up through to reach a view over the site.

We have tried to find ways to go beyond the gallery wall and create a real diversity of typologies and conditions for the display of art.
— Rem Koolhaas

New buildings and elements slot within the existing built fabric, at times seamlessly merging and at other times starkly contrasting. The first of these additional structures is ‘The Podium’, a formally minimal building with an entirely glazed ground floor, topped with a windowless slab dramatically cantilevering over the glass box and almost touching the existing building across the courtyard.

This striking contrast between old and new is repeated throughout the site, mainly through an exciting play on materials: foamed aluminum panels meet marble floors, grated flooring meets cobblestone paving, polished stainless steel sits flush within stucco walls, existing steel elements are painted fluorescent-orange.

Other new additions are less obvious. Clad in the same stucco walls as the majority of the complex and classical in form, a new cinema/theater gives the impression that it has been there all along. It seems that the only addition is a single polished stainless steel facade, which can be opened up onto the adjacent courtyard for outdoor performances.

In addition to the various spatial typologies of the interior, there is a range of outdoor and truly public spaces – you only pay to enter the gallery buildings. Gorgeous fig trees with mint-green chairs scattered underneath line the cobblestone streets. You can sit in the open courtyard and gaze into the podium’s glazed gallery space. The terrace and long bench in front of the cafe (the interior of which was designed by Wes Anderson) would be at home anywhere in the center of the city; you can eat the best gelato of your life here at the price level of any Milanese cafe.

Open to the city and rooted in the existing fabric of the site, Fondazione Prada has created a provocative and new kind of art space, housing a diversity of content and activities within the varied spatial typologies of its architecture.

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