At first glance, Rem Koolhaas’ Prada Transformer in Seoul looks like a Brobdingnagian toddler’s toy, a luminous, and scaleless, triangular object—in fact, a 20-meter-tall tetrahedron—tautly wrapped in a translucent white elastic membrane. Inside, 280 pieces of steel, which tip the scales at 180 tons, frame the elaborate structure, giving shape to the cruciform, the circle, the rectangle, and the hexagon that make up the various planes of the tetrahedron with Tinkertoy-like precision.
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In the context of the 16th-century Gyeonghui Palace, the Prada Transformer is as alien a presence as I.M. Pei’s glass pyramid at the Louvre. Unlike Pei’s crystalline structure in Paris, however, the Prada Transformer is neither permanent nor static. It moves, reinvents itself—with the assistance of four cranes that “roll” the Transformer over and into a new position for each of the four installations/exhibitions scheduled over its six-month life span. “The architecture is literally wrenched from its foundations and with the lumbering movements of an awakened giant, learns to roll with the punches,” the 54-year-old Dutch architect quips. In other words, as the Prada Transformer morphs for each successive event, the floor becomes the wall becomes the ceiling becomes the wall becomes the floor.
“Rather than having one average condition, we conceived a pavilion that, by simply rotating it, acquires a different character and accommodates different needs,” says Koolhaas, the Pritzker Prize winner, who also designed the Prada “Epicenter” stores in New York and Los Angeles. As a temporary venue to showcase art, architecture, film, and fashion, all subjects close to the hearts of Prada and Koolhaas, the Prada Transformer speaks to the multidisciplinary concerns of the fashion designer and the architect, both of whom are committed to expanding the boundaries of their respective disciplines. Koolhaas and his firm, Office for Metropolitan Architecture, aspire to appreciably more, for example, than satisfying a program and coming in on budget and schedule, as the architect has made clear not only in his built work, but also in Delirious New York and S,M,L,XL, his two best-known theoretical treatises. For their part, Miuccia Prada and her husband, Prada CEO Patrizio Bertelli, sponsor Fondazione Prada in Milan, which mounts shows and installations by such contemporary artists as Marc Quinn and Mariko Mori, Steve McQueen and Tom Sachs, not to mention publishing lavish monographs, all under the guidance of veteran curator Germano Celant.
The Prada Transformer made its public debut on April 25 with a month-long installation of an ongoing project entitled Waist Down—Skirts by Miuccia Prada, which drew some 25,000 visitors. The exhibition was designed by Prada in collaboration with OMA’s “think tank,” curatorial, and publishing arm, AMO, which also oversees www.prada.com and collaborates on the staging of both Prada and Miu Miu fashion shows, and advertising campaigns.
Currently on view in the Prada Transformer is Flesh, Mind and Spirit, a film festival co-curated by former New York Times film critic Elvis Mitchell and Mexico City-born director Alejandro González Iñárritu ( 21 Grams, Babel), who picked up the Best Director Award in Cannes in 2006. The 14 films in the festival are eclectic and international, and shown, three times a day, in their original language with both Korean and English subtitles. From the classic to the contemporary, the offerings range from Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad and Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God to Jiwoon Kim’s The Good, the Bad, the Weird.
The next roll of the Transformer will take place on July 30, transforming the pavilion into a gallery for Turn Into Me, an installation by Nathalie Djurberg, a Swedish artist who has made her name with unsettling 3-D scenarios that employ grotesque clay and plasticine figures, surreal sets, and provocative short, stop-motion technique videos projected onto video screens. The closing event of the pavilion is a Prada fashion show for 500 guests.
For those not in or on their way to Seoul, the Prada Transformer is also both virtual and interactive: www.pradatransformer.co.kr or www.prada.com. There’s even a blog to which viewers are welcome to post their comments on the Prada Transformer and its various programs.
Charles Gandee, a former editor at Vogue, has written for The New York Times Magazine, Architectural Record, and Travel & Leisure.