Magazine article The New Yorker

High-Tech Emporiums

Magazine article The New Yorker

High-Tech Emporiums

Article excerpt

In 1948, Frank Lloyd Wright redesigned a home-furnishings shop on Maiden Lane in San Francisco for Lillian and Vere Morris. His plan called for a multistory interior space but no traditional display windows, which worried the Morrises, and Wright assured them that he was thinking of their commercial needs. "We are not going to dump your beautiful merchandise on the street," he wrote, "but create an arch-tunnel of glass, into which the passers-by may look and be enticed. As they penetrate further into the entrance, seeing the shop inside . . . they will suddenly push open the door, and you've got them. . . . Like a mousetrap!" Rem Koolhaas has given Prada more or less the same advice. Koolhaas doesn't think much of the old modernist idea of transparency, which says that you put goods in big, open windows and let them speak for themselves. He also believes that if Prada is to survive what seems to be overexpansion it can't keep building those mint-green stores everywhere. Koolhaas, like Wright, has good marketing instincts, and after studying Prada's problems, he told the company that it should start selling architecture along with the handbags.

Koolhaas has suggested that to avoid "the Flagship syndrome: a megalomaniac accumulation of the obvious," Prada should create a series of "epicenters," or super-sized stores, each a distinct work of design. This seems sensible enough. A company that has based the aura of its brand on cutting-edge design might be well advised to think in terms of a cutting-edge environment. Alas, however, the first of these new stores, the Prada shop at 575 Broadway, in SoHo, is not a staggering reinvention of the retail environment, no matter what Koolhaas and his followers claim. The enormous new store, which cost somewhere in the neighborhood of forty million dollars, combines some hard-edged late modernism with some fancy technology (glass-enclosed dressing rooms that turn translucent at the touch of a button), and comes in a package that, like a lot of Koolhaas's work, mixes roughness with sleekness in a way that never manages to avoid seeming self-conscious. The architectural centerpiece is a set of zebrawood steps, like bleachers--what Koolhaas calls "the wave"--which descend from the street-level entry to the main selling floor, one level below. This creates both selling space and performing space, since the steps can be used as seating. But most of the time they are covered with shoes. What the wave does best is disguise the fact that most of this spectacular store is actually in the basement.

The wave reminded me of the huge Ferris wheel in the new Toys R Us store in Times Square, which opened a few weeks before Prada SoHo. Both Prada and Toys R Us suffer from a sense that their brands are being diluted, and the New York stores were conceived as an antidote to this. The Toys R Us store, like Prada SoHo, has an underground selling area--although most of the store is above-ground--and the designers wanted to camouflage what could be perceived as dark and unpleasant grottoes. The sixty-foot-high Ferris wheel makes customers think that they are in one big space, and it makes Koolhaas's wave at Prada seem tame. The Toys R Us store was designed not by a famous architect but by a group that included Joanne Newbold, a store planner, and Gensler, a large commercial architecture firm. It is fair to say that the world of design did not greet the opening of the store with the same degree of reverence as it did Prada SoHo, but the effect created at Toys R Us is similar, and a lot less pretentious. Of course, Toys R Us is quite a bit bigger than Prada. The architects had the equivalent of a four-story atrium to work with, and more than a hundred thousand square feet of selling space.

I like the Times Square Toys R Us a lot, in large part because it demonstrates Koolhaas's theories more clearly than Koolhaas's store does. It's exuberant, and doesn't try to be important. It is probably the best indoor public space around Times Square. …

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