Bas Princen, courtesy Fondazione Prada Approaching OMA's Prada Foundation.

One of the most important aspects of architecture is its ability to find beauty in the everyday. By making us see materials we never noticed in a new way; by twisting forms out of proportion or putting them in tense relations with each other; and by pulling out the hidden mechanical systems and structure that hide within walls, thus exposing them and sending them soaring over our heads, architecture can mine the mundane for the revelatory and amaze with the building blocks of our daily lives.

No firm has been consistently better at doing that over the last 25 years than the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA). The firm’s latest achievement, a complex of renovated distillery structures and new buildings in Milan’s industrial area that now houses the Prada Foundation, ranks up there with the first proof of its abilities, the 1992 Rotterdam Kunsthal. Though OMA is now huge and spends much of its time doing buildings in which it can be difficult to find how the architecture contributes to the construction, it is still true that when the firm’s main partner, Rem Koolhaas, Hon. FAIA, and his crew work on a labor of love such as this, the results are astounding.

Photograph by Bas Princen, Courtesy of Fondazione Prada
Aaron Betsky The Foundation's coatroom references "the city’s subway system, all green gloss and fluorescent light."

However, if the description above makes you think that you are going to find a set of buildings whose expressive forms or novel materials blaze forth from their run-down setting, you will be disappointed. But you shouldn’t be. It is exactly the seeming normality of most of the structures that makes the trek to the Foundation so worthwhile. The one piece of derring-do, the way a new tower of galleries leans on one canted column that jams down through an existing building towards its foundation, is also the Foundation’s weakest moment. Only the matter-of-fact manner in which the column inhabits the old space, working as just another piece of material around which the exhibits have to find their way, saves this moment of otherwise useless look-ma-no-hands.

Aaron Betsky One of OMA's new buildings "cantilevers over a courtyard, exposing a belly of steel girders and spouting an escape stair."
Photograph by Bas Princen, Courtesy of Fondazione Prada A closer shot of the "belly of steel girders."

The Prada Foundation is a collage not only of old and new construction, but also of different materials. OMA seems to have chosen most of these for their ordinariness: plain concrete and unfinished plywood, which have become the signature of a certain kind of late Modernism, as well as metal fencing and lattices, sheets of laminated plastic, and panels of cast concrete aggregate. If these neutral and banal surfaces produce any reference, it is to Milan’s post-1960s modernist vernacular. Areas such as the coatroom even recall the city’s subway system, all green gloss and fluorescent light. Koolhaas and Miuccia Prada—chief designer for Prada and the granddaughter of founder Mario Prada, she’s the one who collected the art that is housed here—have a distinct fondness for the forms and colors of the era in which they were teenagers and young adults. What the Foundation then does is turn what is a mainstay of Prada’s fashion into its architectural equivalent.

There are moments of expression and rhetoric in this complex. One of the new boxes cantilevers over a courtyard, exposing a belly of steel girders and spouting an escape stair. Another building is clad all over in reflective glass, playing the by now classic modern game of asserting its presence while pretending to just mirror its surroundings. Inside, translucent walls made of polycarbonate slide by concrete structures, attached with diagonal bracing, while stairs descend under skylights to tombs where art treasures lie buried—one of these is the cave that photographer Thomas Demand created for Grotto, which is a reproduction, in cardboard, of a grotto on the Spanish island of Mallorca and the set he used to produce a series of photographs of that name.

Aaron Betsky Another of the new buildings is "clad all over in reflective glass, playing the by now classic modern game of asserting its presence while pretending to just mirror its surroundings."
Aaron Betsky
Photograph by Charlie Koolhaas, Courtesy of OMA

What all these gestures—both small and large—or faints from the ordinary have in common is that they give you the sense that you have wound up on a stage set. Objects, whether art or architecture, and you are posed against these shifting planes that seem at times to construct a fragment of a modernist utopia from the past, when we thought all buildings would be made of human-made materials and would soar over our heads. But the illusion is never complete. At times, Koolhaas makes you feel as if you are behind the scenes, looking at how the effect is created. The staircase in the new tower is a double scissor, only one side of which you use (the other is the fire escape), while windows show you the other, inaccessible, run. The walls here are covered in particleboard, while at the landings you look through a metal screen at an unfinished wall, complete with all the painting marks on the drywall, lit like a work of art.

The new tower is all rhetoric, from the convoluted circulation to the splayed forms of the galleries and the alternating long and focused views over the neighborhood of train tracks, factories, and apartment buildings. The Haunted House, on the other hand, an existing building Koolhaas had painted gold, is a bit of alchemy that produces a stack of small galleries whose views are blocked by frosting or concrete panels, reinforcing the notion that you have gone through the looking glass and are now in another world.

Aaron Betsky The new tower.
Aaron Betsky The gold-painted Haunted House.

The space that best sums up all these faints and illusions, however, is one Koolhaas and his team did not design: the café, a stage set created by film director Wes Anderson. Recalling a traditional Milanese establishment, it makes the act of recall evident by painting on the metal ceiling and using traditional furniture and fixtures. But Anderson then adds a knowing reference by using colors for the counters in the same color Prada uses in its store interiors. Both a display place for Prada and an evocation of another time and space, the whole Prada Foundation makes you feel like an actor in a nostalgic movie and in the company’s aesthetic universe as soon as you cock your head to consider a painting or sit down to order an espresso.

Aaron Betsky Wes Anderson's café.

Yes, the Foundation evokes a past, but it is a fairly recent past. The whole Prada Foundation is a giant memory palace, although every time you think you know the reference, it is just a touch off, too abstract, or one scene fades into another one as you turn the corner. It leaves you always looking for a world gone by—one that might possibly have never existed in the first place. That what you are remembering is so modern—made of artificial materials, abstract forms, and gestures taken from the catalog of Constructivism and its heirs—makes this recall all the more disorienting.

To leave the looking-glass world of the Prada Foundation is to look at the world with new eyes. You start noticing the fencing, the factories, the faded stucco and the leftover buildings, many of which seem to be of the same vintage as the one the Foundation is trying to recall all around you. You see billboards as fragments of other worlds and people as extras in the movie or catwalk show you are living. Part of that is the after-effect of the generally odd and disturbing art Miuccia Prada has collected, but most of it is the result of OMA’s genius at making us look again at space, form, and ourselves.

Aaron Betsky Staircases lit by translucent polycarbonate panels and skylights.
Aaron Betsky Closer shot of the translucent polycarbonate panels and particleboard walls in the stairwell.