OMA's gold leafing of an existing building as part of the Fondazione Prada museum is a single, and physically non-invasive, design decision which boldly announces the conceptual statement of the entire project - it is the simplicity of this move that we find enchanting.
OMA have built a reputation for daring and controversial design schemes, bold and colourful, using interesting materials and shapes designed to get noticed. However founding director, Rem Koolhaas has acknowledged that they felt mounting pressure to continually surpass themselves and now embrace preservation as a means of achieving intelligent solutions. In Rem Koolhaas’ words conversion architecture requires “intelligence, precision and creativity - and there’s no expectation that we’ll be making a huge splash... Conversions are more about concepts than effects.”.
In his interview with Marianne Wellershoff, published in Kultur Speigel (link below), Koolhaas states “We shouldn’t tear down buildings we can still use…. We have to preserve history. Future generations, after all, should understand the past.”
OMA illustrate with the new Fondazione Prada museum (images above) that you don’t need to demolish and build from scratch to create a spectacle, and that the retention of existing buildings does not need to compromise the architectural solution - they can even provide the fabric on which to make a contemporary statement. The Fondazione Prada museum project is the redevelopment of 100 year old factory buildings, with bold new interventions in concrete, metal, and glass and including the refurbishment of an existing tower that OMA have coated in 24-carat-gold leaf. The applied gold finish to a single existing building may appear to be a glaringly modern gesture, but aesthetically the finish balances beautifully with the softer and more industrial material textures on the site. OMA wanted to show how a razor-thin coating can transform an unremarkable building which may otherwise be rejected and demolished due to its poor aesthetics. This gesture also fuels the debate around the value we attribute to historical buildings: how we judge their merit for retention; and how we justify contrasting approaches to the conservation, restoration, and creative reuse of existing structures. On a more practical level, having tried gold leafing on a small scale ourselves, we also marvel at the physical achievement of applying such a delicate material over such a large and unforgiving surface.
Koolhaas states that the buildings developed for the Fondazione Prada museum also include more subtle interplays between old and new - “The outline of the old structure’s windows, for instance, are projected onto the half-transparent surfaces of the new building by daylight.” It may be necessary to make a field trip to Milan to fully appreciate this final concept. Jim, our newest member of the team, is driving to Italy this summer before settling down to join us in September. He’s promised to stop in at the Prada museum, including the bar designed by Wes Anderson, and report back.