All that glisters – OMA galleries in Milan and Moscow


Since 2004, Prada and OMA have co-produced some amazing spaces, from catwalk sets to temporary museums, metamorphing stages to concept stores. At 19,000 sq m, the Fondazione Prada’s new campus for contemporary art is their biggest collaboration yet. And it’s made of foam and gold. We go prospecting in the southern fringes of Milan


Blueprint

Words Shumi Bose

Photography Paul Raftery


For over a decade, the ongoing romance between two houses of architecture and fashion - undoubtedly two of the world's most influential - has engendered more column inches than most cross-disciplinary collaborations. Starting with the stage design for a 2004 Prada menswear collection, OMA has gone on to design store concepts, kinetic stages, catwalk shows and exhibitions, all under the patronage of Miuccia Prada (Miuccia to friends and press, Mrs Prada to work colleagues). Rem Koolhaas himself is rumoured to dress exclusively in Prada threads. Whether or not this is true, the mythologies of the two firms have become inextricably intertwined, which itself is rather extraordinary.

The inaugural ‘Serial Classic’ exhibition in a Miesian new gallery: ancient sculptures alongside antiquarian copies, on a sea of travertine
The inaugural 'Serial Classic' exhibition in a Miesian new gallery: ancient sculptures alongside antiquarian copies, on a sea of travertine

The new Milan campus for the Fondazione Prada is OMA's largest project affiliated to the Prada empire. Initiated in 1995, by Miuccia Prada, her erudite husband Patrizio Bertelli (respectively the creative and business brains behind Prada itself) and the curator Germano Celant, the foundation was born of a shared love of the contemporary art. Since then, it has staged no fewer than 24 solo exhibitions in Milan, opened a venue in Venice in 2011 and mounted various international events. Miuccia Prada herself is known for commissioning numerous works, most famously a Carsten Höller exit-slide for her own office - as an influential patron, she has previously been invited to present the Turner Prize.

The inaugural ‘Serial Classic’ exhibition in a Miesian new gallery: ancient sculptures alongside antiquarian copies, on a sea of travertine
The inaugural 'Serial Classic' exhibition in a Miesian new gallery: ancient sculptures alongside antiquarian copies, on a sea of travertine

Crucially, for a country with such an abundance of historic treasures, spaces and support for contemporary art are distinctly lacking: there's the nearby Hangar Bicocca, the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice and Zaha's MAXXI if you like that sort of thing. So if it seems unlikely that the lovechild of a fashion house and an architecture office could offer hope to contemporary art in Italy, consider that the new Fondazione will offer twice the gallery space of New York's new Whitney Museum. Beyond a scale of ambition, there's a cerebral, polymathic empathy between the very characters - of Miuccia and Rem, of Prada and OMA. The purpose of this project was to produce a range of spaces for the creation, display of and engagement with art; what results is the built realisation of a particular ethos, affording the protean OMA a return to form. And it was always going to be stylish.

Fragile, flaking gold leaf on the Haunted House contrasts with the bizarre aluminium foam cladding a new gallery
Fragile, flaking gold leaf on the Haunted House contrasts with the bizarre aluminium foam cladding a new gallery

Complex: On the site of an old gin and whiskey distillery, near a scruffy, disused railway track (think Hackney Wick a few years ago) at Largo Isarco, the new Foundation complex intends to host a variety of programmes, 'a place of real research,' according to Bertelli and Prada. Across an eventual 19,000 sq m of gallery space in new and old buildings, its activities can expand 'from cinema to design, architecture to philosophy, and fashion to performance'. So to host this expanded potential, in addition to restoring and transforming the existing buildings of the former distillery, OMA has added three completely new volumes. Three well-dressed new volumes, of course: a new gallery for temporary exhibitions, swathed in sheets of aluminium spongecake; a mirror-clad auditorium; and a nine-storey tower in white concrete, under construction and due to open next year - a future beacon for the site, though the neighbourhood will surely have picked up by then.

The construction site of the white concrete Torre is visible through the Great Hall, presently littered with cars customised by Elmgreen & Dragset among others
The construction site of the white concrete Torre is visible through the Great Hall, presently littered with cars customised by Elmgreen & Dragset among others

The old distillery buildings - dating between 1910 and 1941 - form the site perimeter; from the dusty, nondescript Via Brembo, entrance is through an historic access gate. The shock of the new comes first from OMA's new exhibition space: a huge, column-free hall in the manner of Mies, fully glazed and topped with not concrete, but what looks like congealed metal spaghetti.

Lost Love (2000), by Damien Hirst, occupies one of the severe concrete Trittico spaces, where once the former brewery vats sat
Lost Love (2000), by Damien Hirst, occupies one of the severe concrete Trittico spaces, where once the former brewery vats sat

In photographs, the gallery's second storey might even appear to be pebbledashed, like one of those smirking hipster clashes between low culture and haute couture. Close up, the surface is more like tranches of glittery, sliced cake, iridescent in the reflected golden light. Densely textured and dimpled, aluminium foam - developed by observing explosive underwater chemical reactions, and produced in sheets - is used here for the first time as a major cladding material.

Thomas Demand’s Processo Grottesco unusually shows the artist’s working methods, in a bespoke basement space
Thomas Demand's Processo Grottesco unusually shows the artist's working methods, in a bespoke basement space

A closer, denser grain is specified for interior walls, while the outside is coarse - like genoise sponge compared to ciabatta. Across the higher storey, its organic tangle is disciplined into sheer, rectilinear planes, punctuated with more glass and braced by chunky steels, which in turn allow a total freedom of plan inside the gallery spaces.

Shiny shiny: between cobbles, parquet, aluminum foam and gold leaf, the campus offers sublime textural contrast.
Shiny shiny: between cobbles, parquet, aluminum foam and gold leaf, the campus offers sublime textural contrast

Joined without pause to this textured, spartan block is an historic four-storey building, retained from the existing complex and covered in four layers of gold-leaf. This volume is given over to site-specific installation works, specially commissioned by Prada herself; currently, the fairytale-sinister works of Robert Gober occupy all floors. The effect of the gold is undeniably mesmerising; I visited on sunny and cloudy days, and in both conditions the radiant glow of the Miuccia-monikered Haunted House is transformative, affecting the surfaces and volumes around it (as well as the people - like a light to moths, gilded walls are a seemingly irresistible background for selfies). 'It turns out that gold is a relatively cheap facade material - far cheaper than marble, or even some types of paint,' declares Koolhaas, with wicked nonchalance. Technically, this is true; the real cost is in labour and maintenance; each square of gold leaf is painstakingly applied by hand to the prepared walls, and as this is already flaking off - the odd high-carat shred glints on the cobbled ground - it remains to be seen whether or how this baroque, poetic state of decay will be sustained.

Shiny shiny: between cobbles, parquet, aluminum foam and gold leaf, the campus offers sublime textural contrast
Shiny shiny: between cobbles, parquet, aluminum foam and gold leaf, the campus offers sublime textural contrast

Revisions to OMA's original scheme have allowed for a large courtyard, accessed through the reception lobby's magnificent clash of aluminium, gilt, polycarbonate and parquet. Occupying the approximate centre of this space, as cool as a pair of Aviator sunglasses, is the second of OMA's new additions: a sleek, self-contained auditorium with full cinema. Additional tricks: the mirrored, bi-fold walls can lift and retract, opening the auditorium to the courtyard (the raked floor and truffle-green seating can also be adjusted to form one common ground - it also has a private roof terrace).

Shiny shiny: between cobbles, parquet, aluminum foam and gold leaf, the campus offers sublime textural contrast
Shiny shiny: between cobbles, parquet, aluminum foam and gold leaf, the campus offers sublime textural contrast

Below the auditorium, a special basement holds an exclusive and permanent Thomas Demand installation. Commissioned by Prada, Processo Grottesco (2006) was the first work in which Demand agreed to show his research and working method, a process usually hidden if not actively destroyed. Cabinets of research and testing materials are arranged alongside the work, in a custom-built subterranean grotto.

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