Architectural historians reflecting on the year 2015 will likely focus on Milan. Not only has the Expo Milano 2015 been a significant architectural event but the city has also recently become home to several other projects worthy of international attention, including David Chipperfield, Hon. FAIA’s Mudec Museum of Cultures, local studio Baukuh’s House of Memory, and Stefano Boeri’s towering Vertical Forest.
One of the more impressive and widely discussed of these and other new projects in the city is the Office for Metropolitan Architecture’s (OMA's) Fondazione Prada. Located on the site of an early-20th-century distillery in a scrappy industrial neighborhood in southern Milan, the private art space is home to the collections of the leading fashion family whose goal was to create a cultural destination in an underutilized part of town. The architect’s challenge, in turn, was to transform a compound of motley, unremarkable buildings into a satisfying whole. The resulting site contains seven existing buildings and three new structures, together housing 205,000 square feet of exhibition space, offices, a theater, and a bar, in addition to generous courtyards.
The project is largely a success, due to the refreshingly experimental yet understated architectural handling of both old and new structures, which are replete with inventive material surprises. Yet despite its corporeal strengths, the Fondazione suffers from a lack of clear wayfinding and circulatory access—hindrances that will likely impede the client’s stated aspirations of “openness and invitation” and creating “new ways for sharing ideas.”
The Fondazione Prada excels as a physical artifact. OMA head Rem Koolhaas, Hon. FAIA, explains in the project brief: “The Fondazione is not a preservation project and not a new architecture. Two conditions that are usually kept separate here confront each other in a state of permanent interaction—offering an ensemble of fragments that will not congeal into a single image, or allow any part to dominate the others.” Most visitors can detect which buildings have been renovated and which are new, but the unexpected treatment of the historical structures—such as the addition of Miesian steel columns to the Biblioteca or luminous gold-leaf surfacing to the Haunted House, an existing site building used as an exhibition space—enlivens the dialogue between edifices of different periods more than what could be expected from the conventional binary treatment of old versus new.
The project is a gesamtkunstwerk, a totalizing work of art that reads more like a balanced collection of essays than a volume by a single author. Craft at the Fondazione is paramount. Throughout the entire complex, every paver, light fixture, and handrail is conceived of and placed with extreme precision, yet the project never feels stale, thanks to the careful curation and juxtaposition of materials. For example, the Podium building, which is a newly constructed gallery near the Haunted House, is clad inside and outside with panels of foamed aluminum (shown above), a material typically used in the automotive and medical industries. Meanwhile, platforms of travertine cover the floor, which in some areas hovers above layers of honeycomb aluminum and solid acrylic (shown below).
Other material pairings are similarly delightful: The Podium building’s sleek black-steel exit stair flaunts a guardrail of orange construction fencing; the Cinema’s rough concrete walls support a giant stainless-steel mirror; internally illuminated metal-mesh box steps create a glowing apron in front of the historical structures. These material selections are clever without being gratuitous, and they add up to a whole that is permeated with understated elegance while remaining richly varied and continually changing—reinforcing Koolhaas’ aim that “the complexity of the architecture will promote an unstable, open programming.”
Yet this openness is not reflected in how a visitor is required to navigate the complex. While generously sized rectilinear courtyards and axial pathways encourage exploration within the compound, a handful of design choices act as impediments. First, an imposing steel gate serves as the Fondazione’s sole public entrance. Second, although the complex has ample doorways in its new and existing buildings, access is severely restricted to one entrance per exhibition space and most of the portals remain locked. (The Plinth building's exit stair, shown below, is likewise inaccessible.) Third, wayfinding is virtually nonexistent. Signage is minimal at best, informational pamphlets do not include entry points, and some buildings are only accessible via passage through others. As a result, first-time visitors are forced to conduct a trial-and-error tour of the compound.
Understandably, the galleries must be secure and their access points controlled. The minimization of signage is beneficial in that it provides visitors with a satisfyingly uncluttered visual field. Nevertheless, the combination of these circumstances results in a landscape of restriction and frustration, especially when the archetypal model of the compound suggests unfettered circulation within its borders. Surely it would be better to charge admission at the front gate and allow open access throughout the complex. (The bar could have its own entrance from the public street.) Alternatively, the perimeter galleries could contain free exhibits open to the public, limiting paid admittance to a smaller set of interior spaces—similar to SANAA’s 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art in Kanazawa, Japan.
Without such strategies to improve physical access, the buildings and other spaces remain mute to one another. And the architecture, despite its visually provocative means of material expression, merely projects an impression of secrecy and aloofness. If the client is serious about its stated goal to “assert the possibility of participation at all levels for all generations,” it would do well to reconfigure the Fondazione’s circulatory system to create a landscape of access and inclusion.