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Inside Fondazione Prada’s New Milan Space, Torre

The quirky OMA-designed exhibition stimulates new ways of looking at contemporary art

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The Fondazione Prada’s newly completed Torre, which opened to the public for the first time this spring, provides a dramatic last act to the foundation’s sprawling cultural compound dedicated to the manifestation of ideas across the spectrum of art, literature, cinema, music, philosophy and science. Housed in a former distillery and designed by celebrity architect Rem Koolhaas’ firm OMA (the Office for Metropolitan Architecture), the Fondazione Prada is now the largest privately-funded contemporary art museum in Europe, with approximately 13,000 square meters of exhibition space as well as a restaurant, two bars and a cinema. The Torre, a nine-story, white concrete monolith, dominates the skyline of Milan’s industrial Largo Isarco neighborhood and presents an asymmetrical façade that transforms according to the viewer’s perspective.

From the start, the Fondazione Prada campus was conceived as a range of exhibition spaces within existing buildings and new structures that would challenge how works of art were viewed and received. “The idea was a citadel of art, made of different buildings, spaces, programs and materials. You have a juxtaposition of the existing buildings, the white cube, the Podium, the Cinema and outdoor spaces,” says lead architect Federico Pompignoli. “The fact that the buildings were already divided or detached made it the perfect opportunity to insert the different exhibition typologies into different buildings. You could create a series of episodes, a patchwork of different conditions, and you could experiment with different exhibition set-ups in various spaces.”

If the renovated distillery buildings speak to the “refurbished industrial” typology, such as that found at the Tate Modern, and the Podium building, constructed in 2015, which showcases the “art fair” typology with generic, flexible spaces that can be reconfigured for different exhibitions, then the Torre is a riff on the “white cube,” typically a pure, featureless environment that interacts minimally with the artwork and will not interfere with its reception. However, the architects at OMA turned the concept on its head. “We didn’t surrender to the idea of designing a traditional white cube,” says Pompignoli. “OMA is not a fan of this typology. We believe in an open relationship rather than a system of isolation between art, the environment and visitors.”

By playing with the spatial parameters of each story in the tower, the architectural team designed a series of nine “special conditions,” so that no two floors are the same. The core of the building, normally at the center of a tower structure, was moved to the south, creating a wedge-shaped footprint in order to gain open gallery spaces to the north. The galleries were then cantilevered above the building’s triangular foundation in a sequence of alternating floor plans—some triangular, others rectangular—that extend over the public street beyond the property line. The architects also increased the ceiling height by close to two feet from one story to the next, creating a progression in height from just under nine feet on the first floor to nearly 28 feet at the top. In addition, each story boasts a wall of windows that faces to the north, east or west, drawing upon the mutability of natural light in different weather conditions and at varying times of the day. The result is a shifting kaleidoscope of viewing environments as the viewer ascends through the tower, with each floor offering a different combination of spatial parameters that subtly changes the way the art is situated and seen. “What happens if the same art piece is hung on a wall 3 meters high or 8.5 meters high? It completely changes the meaning and reception of the art piece,” says Pompignoli. “It explores the relationship between art and the container.”

The Torre’s inaugural exhibition is “Atlas,” which the Fondazione Prada describes as a mapping of the ideas and visions that run through its permanent collection of 20th and 21st century works produced between 1960 and 2016. The product of a conversation between Miuccia Prada and the foundation’s artistic director, the renowned curator and critic Germano Celant, the exhibition is staged as a series of confrontations between individual artists whose works speak and interact with one another. On the eighth floor, William N. Copley’s sexually charged nudes stare down from the walls at Damien Hirst’s glass-walled tanks containing an animatronic figure in a laboratory or a suspended umbrella and floating rubber ducks. Expansive views of the Milan skyline open out behind them. On the first floor, Carla Accardi’s vivid abstract works from the late ‘60s and ‘70s commune with Jeff Koons’ giant, rainbow-colored Tulips against a backdrop of fields and tower blocks. The exhibition also features the occasional ‘solo’ or single-artist installations, such as Carsten Höller’s immersive Upside Down Mushroom Room with its gargantuan hallucinogenic mushrooms sprouting from the ceiling. The interactions among the works and the architectural spaces generate unexpected dialogues, new meaning and fresh perspectives. “We created a vertical conglomeration of differences,” says Pompignoli. “We wanted to be consistent with the [Fondazione Prada] museum where every building is a different story.”

An additional confrontation takes place between the gallery spaces, which Pompignoli describes as “soft, proportioned and relaxing,” and the common spaces such as the staircase. “The stairs are a crucial part of the building,” he explains. “In order to gain such conditions in the galleries, the stairs become the most crazy, dynamic, unpredictable space ever. The number of steps, the shape of the landings is changing every time. It’s like two sides of the same coin. To create a calm condition on one side, you have to create a completely dynamic condition on the other.”

The result is a perfect tension between mirrored forms and reflected angles, heaviness counterbalanced by lightness, positive and negative space coexisting in pure equilibrium. Triangular forms and diagonal lines echo one another in the jagged windows, the external contours of the stairs, and the angled handrails. Softening the overall effect is the otherworldly glow of the lighting emitted by the handrails and by service walls clad with pink plasterboard on the landings. “We spent some energy trying to generate a meaningful space,” says Pompignoli. “The light is soft because it has some color in it. Without it, the exposed white concrete would have been too surgical, so we decided to work on warming solutions in terms of light.”

The decision to build the Torre in exposed white structural concrete arose from two separate but interlinked ideas: a literal interpretation of the white cube gallery as a “pure white” structure, and a contrapuntal purity in the use of materials. “Steel and concrete structures are traditional, then they are covered in skins, layers, panels, cladding. You never see the underlying materials,” Pompignoli adds. “The Torre was a more honest and reliable way of building architecture. All the material you see from the outside is white concrete as well as inner spaces: stairs, walls and ceilings. What you see is what it is.”

Adding further to the repertoire of spaces within the Torre are the rooftop bar, with its optical-illusion floor pattern that expands into the infinite over the city, and the sixth-floor restaurant with furnishings by Philip Johnson (designed in 1958 for the Four Seasons Hotel in New York), sculptures by Lucio Fontana, and elements from Carsten Höller’s nightclub installation, The Double Club.

The array of offerings within the Fondazione Prada complex is so extensive that a visit is always first and foremost a process of exploration. “There is no predictable way to visit all of the spaces,” Pompignoli says. “This is not a common feature of museums. It challenges the visitor into taking action, in deciding what to do. You can’t just passively follow a pre-defined curatorial path.”

Indeed, the visitor acts as a curator for his or her own experience, bringing to mind the late, great art critic John Berger’s famous quote: “To look is an act of choice…We never look at just one thing: we are always looking at the relation between things and ourselves.”

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