Tim Abrahams

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Personal animus or civic function?

Architectural Review September 2015

Astonishingly, Milan has no public contemporary art museum. Sure, it has the Padiglione d’Arte Contemporanea, but this is small space with no room for major exhibitions, let alone a collection. It’s got a section of the Museo del Novecento dedicated to contemporary art but it is an add-on to the main purpose of the museum. The private Fondazione Prada arrives into a cultural landscape not to mention an economic one in which it is de facto considered to be an equivalent institution and not simply as we will see because of its scale. The venue is the redevelopment of a factory complex built initially in the 1910s in the form of a courtyard to include warehouses, laboratories and brewing silos. It is effectively a much larger, more open, industrial version of the ubiquitous Milanese housing form of the closed palazzo. At around 18,000m2 in size it covers over half the floor space of Tate Modern.

At the launch Rem Koolhaas thanked Prada for inviting a group of northern Europeans into ‘the southern European condition’. He wasn’t kidding.
The Fondazione Prada arrives on the back of a long process of discussion and debate across the city during which various models for contemporary institutions were proposed, debated and rejected. A contemporary art museum was mooted as part of the redevelopment of Bovisa but by the time that OMA themselves had provided a masterplan for the area in 2007 it had been dropped. With the municipality, not to mention the state, compromised by the Mani Pilute scandal of the 1990s during which time other European cities were investing in major contemporary art institutions, it is no wonder that attempts to include cultural provision in state and EU-funded urban regeneration failed. (Quite why Milan had not addressed this issue earlier is a complex question that has much to do with the city’s particular genius for the applied arts as well as the size and number of its great inward-facing palazzo, permitting the haute bourgeoisie to keep the collection and display of art to themselves.)


The next attempt to address this state of affairs was through private development –or the market – namely through the old Fiera site known as CityLife. A relatively sane Libeskind proposal which was partly to be funded by planning gain and by the city was eventually killed, first by slow sales of the luxury high-rise developments, then in a more considered but perhaps more controversial way by architect Stefano Boeri in his role as Councillor of Culture in the city council. In November 2011 he announced in a rather grandiosely entitled ‘decalogue’ on his vision for the arts in the city that he was switching funds originally designated for Libeskind’s contemporary art museum to Chipperfield’s ropey City of Culture. Boeri went on to describe a system whereby the city might support private initiatives rather than providing a single state institution. ‘The administration must both give visibility, reputation and services to cultural initiatives that arise spontaneously,’ he declared.

It was not just a cop out. In Milan, large private institutions had blurred the line between the public and the private throughout the 1990s and 2000s. Boeri’s proposal for a series of contemporary art spaces diffused throughout the city simply acknowledged that the major players in the city’s art scene were already operating more successfully in the public sphere than any new public institution could. The Fondazione Nicola Trussardi with Massimiliano Gioni as its director opened up some of the most stunning of Milan’s usually secretive palazzi to exhibitions, such as the Palazzo Litta and Palazzo Citterio. Even the smaller collectors got in on the act. A group of them got together in 2003, called themselves ACACIA and began collecting according to what they styled ‘a philosophy of collective patronage’began. Of course, all public collections are effectively based on private ones but in Milan the division is alive rather than historic.


So while the Fondazione Prada building is for a private institution, it also has a very public role. Talk to any curator or art lover in the city and you realise that it has effectively been given a publicly sanctioned role as the pre-eminent contemporary art space in the city. This tension informs OMA’s interventions into this former distillery compound which was added to in an ad-hoc fashion throughout the early part of the 20th century. Just to the south of the east–west railway lines which sever the city in the same way as the north–south running railway lines that deform the urbanism of north London, the site has been opened up at three of its four corners. At its north-east corner, the traditional entrance has been retained with a long former administration block forming ticketing and amenities running south. At the end, at the south-east corner, the Bar Luce styled by Wes Anderson opens up both to the street and the internal courtyard.

It is unfair perhaps to pick on the one daft thing that Rem Koolhaas says at the launch of a new building, given that he says many perceptive things, but to suggest that this complex has been designed to either prevent or mediate against gentrification is rather ridiculous. Gentrification is an economic process. Indeed the Fondazione Prada has a key role in the Largo Isarco area. It bought the distillery and areas to the east and south in the 1990s. The luxury flats to the south of the complex were built on land sold to developers by Prada when they needed to raise capital following a dip in fortunes following the terrorist attacks in the USA in 2001. The compound is as open as it can be however. The tower at the north-west corner (under construction) provides a second entrance with a full duplication of ticketing and amenities, as well as providing rooftop restaurant. Rising above the railway tracks it will be an important signpost to the rest of the city of the building’s existence as well as a home for displaying the Fondazione Prada collection.


There is inherently a play between the idea of private wealth and public display going on with this building in such a manner that has proved to be too much for the conservative disposition of some. One of the extant buildings – a three-storey high administrative block – has been clad entirely in gold. Not gold paint you understand. But gold leaf: 4kg of it – costing roughly around £75,000 – was hammered on painstakingly over three months, over drainpipes, window sills, whatever. (Apparently this was cheaper than trying to imitate gold.) Immediately adjacent – and when viewed from the north apparently smashing into it – is a new building; one that replaces a demolished outbuilding that is effectively a replica of the ground floor of the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin – the archetype of public art institutions. This gallery for temporary exhibitions is a Miesian slab with 1,035m2of column-free exhibition space.

Architecturally the golden building lights up the dull tones of the compound. The site is defined to the north and south by two long two-storey buildings which are simple brick structures covered in render. These house more exhibition space on the ground floor and administration and studios above.

The podium is clad in ‘aluminium foam’ developed for military applications because it is very light. According to OMA partner Chris van Duijn: ‘you put it between two steel plates though and it becomes very rigid but retaining lightness. It is used as filler in plating for armoured cars and such like’. It is a deeply textured, tactile material when viewed up close but at a distance it fades to grey. The compound needed some variety then and, so the story goes, models of the ‘Haunted House’– as Miuccia Prada called this former administrative block – were tested with different colours, with gold, apparently, being arrived at by chance.

A gold building though makes a profoundly interesting artistic statement. In 1910, after six months in Milan, Giorgio de Chirico, educated in Greece and in Germany, painted his first Metaphysical Town Square picture, called ‘The Enigma of An Autumn Afternoon’. Usually when it is described, curators focus on the statue and the two shadowy figures but make little of the golden house (or is it a mausoleum?) that dominates the picture and completes this civic compound, much as the golden house does in the Prada Foundation. The building in Chirico’s painting is formed by two simple columns and a blank entablature, but shimmers in the gold of the afternoon. Inside it is dark. Chirico – a classicist magpie in a nest of Dadaists – would go on to create a store of fragmentary images and shapes that would profoundly influence Aldo Rossi among others, but none so blank, so simple, so enigmatic.


One of the most astonishing aspects of Chirico’s work to which the Haunted House alludes is the strange focus on public space that appears in the work he painted in the decade after he completed ‘Enigma’ and before he turned against modern art. Chirico’s metaphysical pictures are an astonishing conflation of the public and the private. This early Surrealist work by the Italian, schooled in German classicism, is precariously balanced between the urgency of personal expressiveness and an understanding of art as a vital binding agent of civilisation; self-abnegating and timeless. With the first exhibition of the Prada Foundation focusing on classical statuary you can’t help wonder if Miuccia Prada and her long-time collaborator Rem Koolhaas find themselves in a similar bind – to be true to the personal animus of the Prada Foundation or its new civic function.

But then this being Rem Koolhaas, schooled in the method of the Surrealists as much as their artistic vision, it is also something of a joke, albeit a typically intellectual one. There are two new buildings in the compound. However, elsewhere, mundane buildings that remain have been preserved in pristine condition or exalted to the highest degree by being covered in gold.

‘At the launch Rem Koolhaas thanked Prada for inviting a group of northern Europeans into ‘the southern European condition’. He wasn’t kidding.’
Ever eager to resist the metaphysical, encompassing solution of the Modernist desire to rationalise physical appearance, which he knows so well, he covers a building in gold. This plays into architecture’s potential role as the physical manifestation of a grand historical narrative, one that he resists. It is a Postmodernist device but, as they go, it’s a great one. (In counterpoint, perhaps, is Wes Anderson’s bar which, Steve Zissou pinball and terrazzo floors aside, is altogether too restrained, too pleasant.)

Throughout the complex there are equally dry, more obscure comments on the Italian attitude to its past which are, frankly, typical of most European countries, albeit more stringently coded. Despite these robust buildings having stood since the 1910s, as soon as new works began, building codes applicable to earthquake zones kicked in, due to the L’Aquila earthquake of 2009. In the former administrative blocks, concrete trusses have had aluminium plates bolted to either side of them as have the columns. No attempt has been made to disguise the heavy-handedness of this stipulation. Indeed in the Great Hall as the converted warehouse, the extra structural support has been painted a very Dutch bright orange lest it not be noticed. At the launch Rem Koolhaas thanked Prada for inviting a group of northern Europeans into ‘the southern European condition’. He wasn’t kidding.

‘Milanese building codes stipulate solutions not performances,’says van Duijn. So windows must be shaded rather than treated or coated. A certain percentage of sites must be planted with grass seed to aid the run-off of water. OMA managed to convince the city that tinted glass and a metal grille would suffice. The exterior grille provides a continuity with the oak setts which pave the semi-outdoor spaces as well as allowing vehicle access to storage spaces. The arguments put to the city have been worthwhile in that they permit new, surprising sites for displaying art. Unlike say Heatherwick with the Zeitz MOCCA in Capetown, South Africa – where he has paid lavish attention to the industrial construction of the original – Koolhaas understands that contemporary art feeds more on the spatial potentials of industrial architecture than its construction. He has divided a former cistern into three chapel-size spaces, like mini-Turbine Halls, that can be viewed either from above or below.

Apart from the Podium and the Cinema, which are all new builds with climate control, the complex is in many ways a stabilised industrial ruin, rather than being a conventional museum. Even these two new structures have massive bay doors in the side allowing them to be opened and connected possibly by a catwalk. Although Miuccia Prada is always determined to keep her fashion and her art separate, the building allows for potential slippage. Certainly when the Tower is complete there will be more conventional museum space than there is currently. It will give this Metaphysical Town Square a more contemporary moment.

It is one of Koolhaas’s games with extrusion. It begins with a triangular floor plan but after the third level it becomes rectangular again, allowing the structure to lean out and protrude over the street. The fourth storey is triangular again before the building is resolved at the fifth floor with a square plan. On top of that there will be accessible roof terrace with views back towards the Duomo of Milan.

It is entirely appropriate that the venue opened before it was complete. This is a site for intervention as much as it as an institution. Indeed given that the Prada Foundation has chosen this moment to relinquish its need for a Chief Curator, one wonders quite what form this institution is going to take. The organisation has also just found itself with 300 per cent more art space and hasn’t grown in size to compensate. It will need to change to fit this new potential of its superb and intriguing new campus which is a unique ecology of art production, collection and display that has evolved in a city hitherto known more for its design than its art. However, as it stands, the Fondazione Prada is a triumph: here architecture has been used to articulate a new relationship between private collection, patronage and the public as well the relationship between the past and the present.