How We Live: Shopping

June 25, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT


RAY SUAREZ: How many times today did you shop? You may have been picking up something for dinner, or grabbing a quick something to get you between meals. Maybe you were searching for something pretty, or something practical…browsing, or buying. Whether out of necessity or desire, it is all shopping. And when you add up the numbers — three and a half trillion dollars spent last year — shopping is something we all do, a lot.

Just as shopping takes up our time, it also takes up our space. We are surrounded by stores, malls, street vendors, signs. In fact, in America there is well over five and a half billion square feet of retail space.

At the same time, shopping space hasn’t always been at the forefront of architectural innovation in the same way museums and residences, churches and offices have been for centuries.

Enter Rem Koolhaas. The Dutch architect, a Pritzker Prize winner, has been teaching and writing about shopping and retail space at Harvard.

He’s also the architect behind the new Prada store in Manhattan’s SoHo district. The store is the first of three U.S. flagships he’ll do for the luxury clothing line. The lower Manhattan location opened to much ballyhoo in fashion and architecture late last year.

Recently, we sat down with Rem Koolhaas to discuss shopping, and his work as a designer and a teacher.

REM KOOLHAAS: Official architects have kind of curiously and ironically almost never been involved in the design of commercial spaces, and so that you can really count the number where so-called important architects have been kind of responsible for commercial space, almost on one or two hands. If you look at architectural magazines, and that’s what we did, shopping is the twentieth subject in terms of articles written, on churches, education, etc., etc. So it was a territory at the same time pervasive and dominating in terms of quantities, but under-explored in terms of its implications.

The city used to be something that you get for free. It’s been a public space, and it enables the citizens to assemble in a kind of collective sense, but basically through the process, effects of the market economy and through the withdrawal of the public sector and the kind of complimentary invasion of the private sector, which is expressed through shopping, the nature of the city has changed from something that is fundamentally free, to something that you have to pay for, so that even in educational establishments, even in religious establishements and certainly in cultural establishments there is always this kind of commercial presence and–

RAY SUAREZ: So the museum store and the cathedral store…

REM KOOLHAAS: And the cathedral store and even to a large extent the economies of these institutions is dependent on shopping. So therefore there is a continuous encroachment in each different atmosphere. Each different sphere has this pressure to buy

RAY SUAREZ: And when you design a place, what do you have to keep in mind as the designer?

REM KOOLHAAS: Well, what you have to keep in mind is, of course, that it’s about display, and it means that there are almost demands similar to a gallery or even museum in a sense, that whatever is in store has to look in a particular way, and that you also have to be able to kind of recontextualize it to give it a degree of theatricality, but we also simply made an inventory of all the things that are really annoying when you shop.

I mean, the whole kind of sequencing of kind of wrapping, kind of giving, credit cards, etc., can be kind of incredibly complicated. So we try to smoothen that as much as possible. And what we particularly tried to do here is that basically in dressing rooms, you always feel very insecure because you’re confronted with your worst fears, and at the same time, at the moment that you have to have a kind of fairly optimistic vision of yourself in order to engage with a particular piece of clothing.

So what we tried to do is to on the one hand make it a mild environment, and to eliminate as much harshness as we could, but at the same time to give you the wherewithal and the information to check your worst fears, or to check your anxieties. So it’s kind of both trying to be generous in terms of the environment, but precise in terms of the information of what you need to know, whether you want to buy this or not.

We tried to define luxury because it’s a luxury brand, so what is luxury? And then we decided that part of luxury could be not to exploit every square foot of the store, because that would then give the client or the visitor a sense of deliberate waste that would translate as a kind of form of generosity of the company in terms of how it receives its visitors.

RAY SUAREZ: You have also included public space that’s almost straightforwardly like an amphitheater in the design. Talk a little bit about that.

REM KOOLHAAS: Well, so what is really the key of the design, there was one fundamental difficulty is that it’s over two levels. So we had to find a way to win the public to the lower level in a way which was not going to be strictly utilitarian, and which was in itself kind of good experience. And so we made a kind of sweeping gesture of a wave that casually brings people down and also takes them up again. And then we exploited that necessity to create a stage and a theater. And so therefore, the steps are either seating or used for the display.

RAY SUAREZ: The location of this store is kind of interesting, too, because you’re in an intensely commercial place that was once factories, once a wholesale district, then an artist colony, and is now becoming a shopping neighborhood again.

REM KOOLHAAS: Well, in that sense it’s been a very straightforward demonstration of our thesis, that basically the city is under the influence of shopping, kind of radically changing everywhere. And without any nostalgia, it was also an attempt to work on one hand within the logic of the kind of commercial environment, but also against it, and to simply try to see whether in relentlessly commercial environment whether it is also possible to stretch that envelope.

RAY SUAREZ: Is there a difference in shopping in Madrid as opposed to Los Angeles, or is there a sense in which sort of everything is pushing for it to someday be the same?

REM KOOLHAAS: That’s very hard to, I think, say, because it is all part of globalization, of course. But within globalization there are huge differences, and, for instance, what you see here is that in America that the first shopping pulled out of the city, and kind of started to kind of create the huge shopping centers, and now in America, and particularly in New York, it’s kind of all back into the city. In Europe on the whole there is more resistance to the idea of kind of putting shopping at this scale in the center cities, so there are different levels of surrender and resistance there.

RAY SUAREZ: In the clothing business fashion trends and innovations often start with the couture lines now being sold out of Koolhaas’ creation by Prada. Then a new kind of shoe, or dress style, heads down in price to the mass market. Could Koolhaas’ design innovations behave the same way as new fashions?

Imagine plasma screens in your local Sears…or going to a dance or lecture at the Macy’s in a nearby mall. Koolhaas doesn’t predict whether his ideas will spread, but his innovations are moving West. Another Prada store is under construction in Beverly Hills.