L’As du Falafel: Koolhaas gets it right

Have you been inside the Prada store on the corner of Prince and Broadway in downtown Manhattan? Once the site of the Guggenheim Museum’s SoHo outpost, the two-story retail space is defined by its upper-to-lower-level transition: a smooth, curving surface that runs from the main floor entrance down to the shop’s larger basement area.

“The Wave,” as it was characterized by the architectural firm responsible for the New York Prada Epicenter, “is the main element facilitating experimentation in what a fashion store can be.” It looks a lot like a half-pipe; you almost expect Bob Burnquist to be pulling off a grab on his skateboard instead of some young urban professional to be surveying a $2,000 handbag. But skating isn’t really the industry that Prada is all about. And it isn’t the image that Rem Koolhaas and his architectural team at OMA were going for in designing the Prada Epicenter either. After all, the 23,000 square-foot commercial venue comes stamped with a $40 million price tag, and Prada is a high end retailer.

So how did Koolhaas and Prada get there?

We all know the mores of gentrification. You start with an old industrial neighborhood, or an ethnic neighborhood, or any low-income neighborhood within the urban setting. You add artists, students — young independents in search of a cheap place to crash, right in the middle of things. The area becomes safer, friendlier and its local culture is romanticized; neo-bohemians replace the working class and in turn attract the affluent middle classes. The neighborhood becomes extortionately expensive and highly stylized with a glit-glam allure. Not only are the locals pushed out; soon the artists can no longer afford the rent either. And you’re left with industrial-looking Stella McCartney and Alexander McQueen shops in the former Meatpacking District where hobo-chic is sold for thousands of dollars.

This is a vacuous aesthetic, a shell with no snail at home. And what you lose in this appropriation is the humanity of a community. In his introduction to “We Skate Hardcore,” a photo-documentary chronicling the day-to-day ventures of a group of in-line skaters living in Williamsburg’s South Side between 1994 and 2004, Vincent Cianni writes of the sense of community that existed in the neighborhood as it was then, half a world apart from the condos and concert venues and idiosyncratic cafes you can find around the Williamsburg Bridge today.

“In this environment of violence, drugs, and urban blight, there are also strong social, religious, and family structures, and the kids who grow up here share a peculiar blend of street smarts and innocence influenced in equal part by popular culture and ethnic identity,” he writes on his website.

That wasn’t the Williamsburg of the “Hipster Olympics,” just as SoHo wasn’t always home to Fifth Avenue merchandise repackaged in a more edgy display. And filling shop windows with faux-mementos of cultural bygones certainly won’t keep that heritage alive.

Better to move forward, not to stagnate within commercial complacency but to reevaluate and redirect the consumer experience. As our comrades at OMA challenge, “What if the equation were reversed, so that customers were no longer identified as consumers, but recognized as researchers, students, patients, museum-goers? What if the shopping experience were not one of impoverishment, but of enrichment?”

This is asking a lot of the shop-goer’s experience. But at least it makes something of its cultural framework rather than hiding behind the pretense of another. Who knows, a walk along the Wave might be empowering, enriching and inspiring for you.

Comments