PRINT October 2015


OMA, Fondazione Prada, 2015, Milan. Photo: Bas Princen.

IN 1877, construction crews were hard at work in the historic center of Milan, where a startlingly new structure was rising next to the gothic cathedral: the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, a vast, vaulted arcade of shops and restaurants just off the Piazza del Duomo. The project embodied many of the key tenets of the burgeoning modernist movement. Its soaring glass canopies were held in place by cast-iron ribs, for example, making use of innovative material and structural technologies and creating a new type of building with little precedent. The designers also took a modern stance toward their site, having razed a district of existing buildings to make room for the complex, exemplifying an approach that would soon be replicated in cities around the world to accommodate the building projects churned out by the engines of modernity, from train stations to exhibition halls, office complexes to airports. As modern architects argued, the discipline, as they saw it, had managed to rupture with the past, freeing itself from the weight of history. With new structural possibilities opened up by industrial technology, aesthetic conventions blown open by modern art, and long-established social and political hierarchies suddenly crumbling, architects could invent entirely new forms for entirely new purposes. The only limit was space, but it was abundant. Between the urban craters bombed out during two devastating world wars, the vast peripheral sprawl of suburban frontiers, and the gaps left by the razing of entire city districts in the name of renewal, the past century produced no shortage of blank spaces. Anything could be built, so long as there was a tabula rasa on which to build it.

Over in England that very same year, in response to a similar tumult ripping through the nation’s industrialized cities, William Morris, an artist and architect, founded the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, a development historians regard as a foundational moment for the practice of historic preservation. So as modern architects set out to invent novel forms for empty sites (or sites made empty by the wrecking ball), preservationists scrambled to save those buildings and landmarks deemed historically significant, working, often heatedly, to render them with historical accuracy. Though it might seem counterintuitive at first, one of their main targets was the practice of restoration, which, to a vocal cohort of nineteenth-century architects, meant returning buildings to a state that they imagined to be original. Whereas preservation (or, in the parlance of Morris, protection) tended to acknowledge that structures adapt over time and that these adaptations ought to be remembered, restoration peeled back those changes in an attempt to identify a supposed point of origin. In either case, the design imperative was to arrest history and represent some kind of fixed, authentic past.

This dichotomy between past and future set up more than a century of ideological conflict between the forward-looking inclinations of modern architectural practice, on the one hand, and the historicist imperatives of preservation, on the other. But if preservation and practice have long worked to different ends, this dichotomy seems less and less tenable today, forcing contemporary architects to actively rethink preservation’s relation to their field. Part of this is driven by practical urgency. In many regions around the world, for example, architects are simply running out of room to build. The sheer volume of buildings and infrastructure produced in the past century and the inexorable global trends toward density and urbanization have revealed the modernist tabula rasa to be less an escape from history than a historical anomaly in itself. When considered alongside rising concerns about responsible use of resources and the ecological impact of new construction, these conditions have increased the appeal of reusing existing structures.

One of the most stubborn roadblocks to this approach, however, is the expanding reach of preservation itself. As it was first conceived, the discipline set its sights on only the most prized but vulnerable landmarks from the distant past, giving them legal protection against market pressures. But after a string of wrecking-ball missteps carried out in a laissez-faire manner, emblematized by the razing of New York’s Pennsylvania Station, the pendulum of preservation swung toward including buildings from the more recent past. Though well-meaning, this strict reading of preservation carries the risk of stultifying urban design, transforming swaths of cities into mausoleums of architectural history and leading architects to seek a version of preservation that is less antagonistic toward new design.

Perhaps no one has been more vocal in this reevaluation than Rem Koolhaas, who for more than a decade has placed preservation squarely in the crosshairs of his theoretical focus. In his 2004 polemic “Preservation Is Overtaking Us,” he makes the case that preservation, originally aimed at two-thousand-year-old monuments, is now addressing the recent past, only twenty years out, and will soon catch up to the present, becoming, as he puts it, “no longer a retroactive activity.” The great concern for Koolhaas and like-minded architects is that preservation’s drive to leave an authentic record of the past will ultimately make cities “suffocatingly stable,” populated with Disney-like historic districts that leave little room for experimentation. What it leaves behind, they worry, will be a collection of singular buildings designated as historically important, but forsaking what cities actually are: cohesive mosaics of critical landmarks, yes, but also those everyday spaces that fade into the background and make cities dynamic places to live. It is that type of quotidian space—a jumble of “bad things, good things, ugly things, mediocre things,” as Koolhaas characterizes it—that most authentically represents the true nature of cities.

In recent years, as several leading architects have been testing alternate ways to work with existing buildings, many of the most innovative preservation projects have involved art museums—perhaps not surprising, given that any museum’s fundamental subject is the interpretation of history. Such developments build on well-established precedents for converting industrial spaces into the kind of light-filled, wide-open galleries deemed ideal for exhibiting modern and contemporary art, which range from the Musée d’Orsay to Dia: Beacon and Tate Modern. But whereas the clients and architects of these forerunners were motivated by a desire to capture the vast spaces left behind by the past, the architects of the latest crop of projects are staking out novel territory by making explicit confrontations between the past and the present. David Chipperfield Architects’ Neues Museum in Berlin, for example, stitches the still-raw ruins of the original Neoclassical museum building, designed by Karl Friedrich Schinkel’s student Friedrich August Stüler in 1855 and badly damaged in World War II, together with unapologetically contemporary spaces, vintage 2009. Or there’s New York’s Park Avenue Armory, a nineteenth-century drill hall that Herzog & de Meuron are currently transforming into a contemporary arts venue by simultaneously restoring the historic building and integrating new details and elements that don’t pretend to mimic the space’s period design. “Our method is not preservation in the traditional sense, where the original state of a building is reconstructed to simulate the historical original,” said Jacques Herzog about his firm’s approach to the armory’s redesign. “Instead,” he continued, “we are . . . revealing the physical traces the building has produced over time and developing highly specific responses to each space.” In the Board of Officers Room, for example, the architects bring to the foreground some of the original details, such as the mahogany surfaces, which have been relieved of more than a century’s worth of grime, but also keep later additions such as a prominent steel chandelier; new elements have been introduced, such as window shades made with copper chains, resulting in a spatial palimpsest stretching nearly 150 years. In projects such as the Neues Museum or the Park Avenue Armory, the existing building is neither restored to an ostensibly original state nor erased to make way for the new, creating an unstable hybrid—not fully historical or fully contemporary.

OMA, Fondazione Prada, 2015, Milan. Photo: Bas Princen.

With the opening of Moscow’s Garage Museum of Contemporary Art in June 2015 and the Fondazione Prada’s new museum in Milan one month earlier, Koolhaas and his Rotterdam-based Office for Metropolitan Architecture have been able to take this manner of preservation several steps further and to make architecturally manifest the argument he had until now made in writing and theory. With the Garage, he transformed a Soviet-era public cafeteria into a museum by wrapping the derelict concrete structure in a translucent polycarbonate envelope and inserting the types of programmatic amenities expected of a contemporary museum (an auditorium, education spaces, a gift shop, and, true to its original purpose, a café). The resulting museum looks nothing like the original, but the look of the building was not what Koolhaas had set out to preserve. Instead, he was more intent on capturing the original building’s underlying essence, saying, “We preserved the grandiose public dimension of the Soviet Union.” There, the relationship is largely dialectical, a contrast between the definitively old and the definitively new.

With the Fondazione Prada, on the other hand, Koolhaas weaves together old and new in such a way that it can be hard to tease them apart, thereby making his most decisive and nuanced argument about how to reconcile the present with the past. Unlike most other preservation projects, including the Neues Museum and the Park Avenue Armory, which build on structures that occupy prominent urban locations and possess plainly evident historic significance, the Fondazione Prada converts a collection of banal buildings—an early-twentieth-century former distillery complex—in a peripheral district removed from Milan’s well-trodden cultural landmarks. As Koolhaas told me during a two-day site visit in June, “The site was generic—slightly derelict, slightly melancholy, on the urban fringe.”

Indeed, although Italy has far-reaching preservation laws, they tend to focus on buildings by well-known architects that have clear value for national heritage. The distillery that became the Fondazione Prada did not have either of these, so it did not fall under this legal jurisdiction. The existing buildings, after all, were generic structures that had long outlived their usefulness. In other words, OMA could just as easily have razed everything on the site.

It is in this sense that the project represents a radical extension of the contemporary reevaluation of preservation, since it is not just a daring response to legal or cultural pressures to retain the past but a willful adoption of preservation as a strategy even where it is not technically necessary—a pointed refusal of the tabula rasa that has long been understood as architecture’s ideal starting point. As Koolhaas put it, “Here, preservation is not necessarily intended to keep something exceptional. . . . It is simply a resistance to start[ing] from scratch.”

In a way, Koolhaas’s determination to work with a site’s existing conditions marks a return to a much more traditional role, a reengagment of some of architecture’s most fundamental principles. Take Michelangelo’s redesign of Rome’s Campidoglio, for example, a monument of Italian Renaissance architecture built to serve as the city’s symbolic center. When he was handed the commission, Michelangelo was given a site that was, in a sense, analogous to the one Koolhaas encountered in Milan, what architectural historian James S. Ackerman described as a “disorderly complex” of “dilapidated” buildings. Rather than bringing them all down to start anew, Michelangelo salvaged a medieval structure to the east and a Renaissance palace to the south, which were set at an awkward eighty-degree angle from each other, unifying them with a new building he added to the west, by setting it, too, at eighty degrees from center and thereby sculpting a trapezoidal piazza, as well as applying a consistent structural language (some necessary reinforcement, some purely aesthetic) across the three different buildings. In Ackerman’s description, “In accepting the existing conditions . . . an irregularity that might have defeated a less imaginative designer became the catalyst.”

It is this same generative structure that Koolhaas has set up for himself as the starting point for his work in Milan. While he makes no mention of the Campidoglio as a precedent, he describes finding a similar set of possibilities in the disorders and challenges posed by the existing context: “If you do preservation . . . there’s a lot of randomness and [there are] opportunities for discovery.” And for Prada, Koolhaas employed a strategy analogous to Michelangelo’s, not focusing on the design of a singular building but bringing together multiple components into a coherent campus by shaping the voids between them. The present complex includes seven existing buildings, most long and narrow, that run along the edges of the site, plus a four-story tower and a cistern positioned toward the center. Within this perimeter Koolhaas added two new structures: a two-story exhibition space (the Podium) and a mirror-clad theater (the Cinema). Just beyond the entrance, at the site’s eastern edge, the Biblioteca (a library and children’s center) connects with a small café, the ticketing area, the Haunted House (as the slender four-story tower, now transformed into exhibition space, has been rechristened), and the Podium to shape a piazza that doubles as the café’s outdoor seating area.

Moving west, just beyond the Podium, Koolhaas unfolds a sequence of three other outdoor spaces, all framed, to the south, by a long narrow wedge of a preexisting building (Sud) that houses a series of small enfilade galleries, and to the north by another preexisting building (Nord) with offices and galleries. The Cinema, parallel to the Podium, carves out a discrete piazza. Floor-to-ceiling panels on each of those volumes can open up onto that outdoor space, and they can be linked with a catwalk between them to create yet another configuration. Just behind the Cinema, Koolhaas kept the distillery’s cistern, a sunken, cavernous structure, as yet another exhibition space, and thereby framed another outdoor area. Along the site’s far-western edge, as the terminus to the Sud galleries, the Deposito provides a vast open space for exhibitions. A third new building, a ten-story tower that will also be devoted to gallery space, is under construction on a corner of the site made vacant by way of wrecking ball and poised for completion next year. As the design of this ensemble progressed, Koolhaas explained, “it became a project about the courtyard—about the public space . . . rather than the objects.”

One of the most salient challenges for any preservation project is to imbue historic buildings with the structural integrity that contemporary codes demand. As Koolhaas points out, “There is a big paradox in preservation: The first thing you need to do is to bring the object to the engineering standards of today, so it basically starts with a major falsification.” While many architects carry out this work with barely visible surgical precision, Koolhaas charted a different course, using newly applied structure as a kind of legible code. If the Campidoglio saw Michelangelo integrate pilasters and lintels to bring together the heterogeneous fragments of the past into a harmonious whole, with the Fondazione Prada, Koolhaas has used structure to cultivate an experiential dissonance. Throughout the campus, the existing buildings needed to be updated to comply with contemporary code, which included increasing resistance to lateral forces. While this could have been accomplished through any number of discreet or even invisible interventions, Koolhaas chose to express this added structure in an array of I beams applied to walls in a way that left them plainly visible. He color-coded these elements for each building (a move he likens to creating a semiotic code). In the north gallery, for example, they come painted in white and applied both inside and outside. On the Biblioteca’s facade, they are rendered in black, but on its interior spaces, in gray. The applied I beams for the vast interior volume in the project’s largest space, the Deposito, are painted bright orange and aligned both horizontally and vertically, creating a kind of exoskeletal grid set against the light-colored concrete. To support the second-story volume that spans the campus from north to south, Koolhaas used a set of colossal black I beams, providing a horizontal counterpoint to the groups of vertical members arrayed across the campus.

The collage effect created by this collision is redoubled by the other interventions—some subtle, some not—carried out on the existing structures as well as in the design of the new buildings. This is most strikingly evident in the Haunted House, a nondescript tower Koolhaas chose to leave on-site but cover spectacularly in gold leaf. The interior design for the café was left to film director Wes Anderson, who created an immersively pastel environment reminiscent of traditional Milanese cafés’. Other elements are just as incongruous but more understated; these include LED screens embedded into the historic facades, and steel-grate landscaping and ramps. This quick inventory notwithstanding, it can be hard to differentiate what has been added from what already existed, since, on the one hand, the component parts have been designed to be so cohesive, and, on the other, the material palette has been made so diverse that it provokes the visitor into a state of Benjaminian distraction. “It’s obviously not conceived as a single object,” Koolhaas said.

So, although each discrete structure could be placed on a time line—historic or contemporary—when considered collectively, they meld into a single experience. From a single vantage point at the entrance of the Sud gallery, for instance, visitors stand alongside an original 1910 facade, gaze under an aluminum-foam cantilever that juts out from the Podium, past the base of the gold leaf–covered tower, and through a glass door to see Wes Anderson’s confection inserted into an original building—and look back to see that entire material constellation reflected on a mirror-covered wall. The architectural experience is, in short, intense. Whereas preservation projects of the past have tended to fetishize a clearly legible narrative—something, anything, that gives a project historical coherence—here, Koolhaas detonates that expectation. A tower covered in gold can’t be considered new, but neither can it be considered old.

Despite the radical effects of many of his interventions, Koolhaas is remarkably understated in discussing the motivation behind them. Describing the as-found condition of the small tower during a walk-through, he said, casually, “Its quality was not particularly amazing, so we made it amazing by coating it in gold.” In this way, he has created a microcosm of what he has argued preservation should have been doing all along: saving key landmarks, yes, but culling the banal leftovers, too. It just so happens that he created the hierarchies rather than working with a preestablished determination of what constitutes a landmark versus a banality. “The idea,” he explained, “was to create the richness of a city, of urbanism.”

By forcing himself to work within existing conditions, Koolhaas was granted yet another opportunity: the chance to issue an architectural en garde! to contemporary artists and curators. He has been vocal in the past about the sameness of so many of today’s art spaces. “The art world,” he said during our interview, “has formally declared industrial spaces as the ideal environment for works of art because they don’t challenge the intentions of the artists.” And at Fondazione Prada, idiosyncratic, intensely challenging spaces abound. For Koolhaas, art and architecture should be engaged in a dialogue beyond the one in which architects simply deliver white boxes to artists.

John Gendall is a New York–based architecture writer.