Until 1999, a branch of Guggenheim Museum, Guggenheim Soho, was located on the corner of Broadway and Prince Street in downtown New York. Sometime that year, the display windows of the museum that faced both streets were suddenly closed down and were then replaced with scaffolds that held a logo of a certain conglomerate. The logo read "Prada."
That marked the end of downtown New York as a cultural epicenter of America. In exchange, it placed downtown New York at the heart of the map of commercialism. The take-over of a cultural institution by a commercial conglomerate exposed significant shift in the economic and cultural climate of New York. People no longer came to New York to see culture. People came to New York to shop.
The brilliance of Rem Koolhaas, the architect behind the new Prada store in Soho, and his client Prada is that they realized this shift and embraced it.
Upon entering the store, a set of huge mannequins welcomes the visitors. Behind them is a curved slope that cuts through the center of the store, blurring the floors of the building. One side of this slope behaves as a set of display shelves while providing seating areas for shoppers/spectators. On the other side is a stage area that can hold a fashion show, or even a theatrical event. During the day, the space is a commercial space. By night, it transforms itself into a cultural space.
The displays in the store are made mobile so that they can easily be moved out of the way on such occasions. Most of the mannequins are cased in cages hung from the ceiling with motorized suspenders.
There have been attempts at bringing art into commerce in the recent past but never has it been done on such a conceptual yet tangible level. Better yet, it is actually realized and materialized in this Prada store.
This store includes other innovative approaches to shopping. For instance, dressing rooms use video technology that allows the shopper to see herself from her back. In retrospect, innovation like this is obvious. In prospect, it seems crazy.
There are several more Prada stores in the works. One is planned to open in Los Angeles early this year and another San Francisco later in the year. Although they will most likely be delayed, it is worth the wait for the new perspective that Prada and Koolhaas might bring to commerce and culture.