Perhaps it was the bicycle with wooden wheels he rode as a young boy that left its discordant blueprint on dutch architect Remment Koolhaas. Better known as Rem, he has been predisposed ever since to find the least conventional yet most innovative solutions to architectural scenarios presented by his clients. Koolhaas and his company, OMA, have made a practice of bringing the asymmetrical and unfamiliar as a kind of "house cool" to an eclectic portfolio of projects -- such as the CCTV Headquarters in Beijing, the Casa da Música in Porto, Portugal, and a variety of intriguing endeavours of luxury labels. Koolhaas has collaborated with Italian brand Prada for 15 years on fashion boutiques, art spaces, pop-up exhibition structures and, most recently, the Fondazione Prada, newly opened in southern Milan.
The Fondazione was created in 1993 as an outpost to analyse the present through the staging of contemporary art exhibitions as well as those focusing on architecture, cinema and philosophy. It's culture as learning, an ever-evolving intellectual pursuit. That dialogue is driven by the respective curatorial departments of the Fondazione, a lofty group who call themselves the Thought Council. Miuccia Prada and her husband, Patrizio Bertelli, are its presidents -- there's even a "scientific superintendent," Germano Celant.
But there's no fashion police here. In fact, there's no fashion at all. The Fondazione is kept fiercely seperate at Miuccia's behest. There's no skein of fabric nor any textile yarn to be found at Largo Isarco, a sprawling wasteland betwixt the railway of tracks and the soulless tower blocks of this glamourless "graybourhood" in Milan.
Mrs Prada, as she's known by her people, is nothing if not visionary. She wanted to open her artistic and cultural Fondazione in different cities, spreading her gospel globally. But Mr Prada talked her out of it. Given that they owned the former distillery from the early 20th century, they decided to start on their own doorstep. Koolhaas wasn't immediately in favour of the idea, suggesting that the industrial-to-gallery/exhbition concept was hardly new or challenging. (He's recently performed a similar stunt at the Garage Contemporary Museum of Art in Moscow for Rusian billionairess Dasha Zhukova, to stunning effect.) So the Pradas told him he could knock it down and start all over agian, should he feel so inclined.
Koolhass did what Koolhaas does: he took the route of greatest resistance and complexity, a midway point of preservation and creation. The space combines seven existing buildings with three new structures: Podium, Cinema and Torre. Through an exagerated, deliberate technical mash-up. Koolhaas created a 205,000sqft campus (or mini-city) that greets you in all its gauze and gloss gallimaufry, like a two-fingered topology of Koolsville.
The entire Rem repertoire is rolled into one mass of contract and oppositions, new and old, horizontal and vertical, narrow and wide, suared and circled, expansive and suffocating. He explains, "By introducing so many spatial variables, the complexity of the architecture will promote an unstable, open programming, where art and artchitecture will benefit from each other's challenges."
Koolhass explains the art/museum debate as well: "It is surprising that the enormous expansion of the art system has taken place in a reduced number of typologies for art's display. To apparently everybody's satisfaction, the abandoned industrial space has become art's default preference -- attractive because its predictable conditions do not challenge the artist's intentions -- enlivened occasionally with exceptional architectural gestures," he says.
None are more visible than the four-storey tower that galvanises the centre of the brooding space, rubbed with gold leaf redolent of Renaissance technique and rising from the compound like salubrious salvation. But even that's not what it seems -- move closer and spot the cracks. What looks like upscale wealth is also luxury affront. The structure is called Haunted House and is eerily remiscent of a seperate light: the iconic Benson & Hedges cigarette advertisements from the 1970s and '80s, in which the golden packet functioned as part of the Egyptian pyramids and other architectural scenarios. But once inside the "packet," it's big windows light up the space well and the sequence of single rooms preserves an intimate scale. The secluded environments host a permanent installation conceived by Robert Gover and two works by Louise Bourgeois. There's irony in Prada's billion-dollar size and global influence. Miuccia and Rem can seem punkish, Sex Pistols-esque, intent on bashing up the amour-propre of art's hierachical and homogenous white space -- smashing its pedestals, vandals ransacking the doors of the conventional and emerging like triumphant liberators in a more seductive world of independent thought.
It's all part and parcel of the Fondazione frisson. The structure has isolating, sinister, almost violent tendencies, compounded by the institutionalised feeling of the complex, as though subversive trans-human experiments are taking place within -- and inveitably we're next. By way of contrast, it's also one big aesthetic adventureland. Standing amid the mash-up, which can also feel like multiple film sets, one's spoiled for choice on the mise-en-scene with which to interact.
Bar Luce is US film director Wes Anderson's shrine to Milanese cafes of the 1950s and '60s. It's Formica furniture, veneered wood panels and terrazzo floor pay faithful homage. Anderson likes it, too. "While I do think it would make a good movie set, it would be an even better place to write a movie."
And then there's the art. See any one of the seven exhibitions: Serial Classic shines a light on classical sculpture in late Republican Roman culture. To our surprise, the Romans were mass-producing and reproducing the Greeks faster than you could say Damien Hirst. Discobolus, the shocking and supremely athletic "formaldehyde shark" of his time, has no original. So, too, Crouching Venus, despite repeated attempts to relocate the It boy and girl of their halcyon day.
The Sud gallery and part of the Deposito, an imposing warehouse on the compound's west edge, is showing work from the Collezione Prada until January 2016. There are pieces from Walter De Maria, Yves Klein and Donald Judd, as well as from contemporary artists such as Jeff Koons, Gerhard Richter, Carsten Höller and Sarah Lucas.
The cinema space is hosting a Roman Polanski project (another Mrs Prada collaborator) in which the director's films are retraced by analysing those that have most influenced him; Citizen Kane, Great Expectations and 8 1/2 among them.
The Cisterna is hosting Trittico, which juxtaposes three works on a roational basisc, emphasising cross-references -- in this case, a cube. We see Eva Hesse's Case II, Damien Hirst's Lost Love and Pino Pascali's 1 Metro Cubo di Terra.
There's no shortage of art and interest in this distillery of dislocation, this intricate complex of Kool. Grab those wooden wheels and get on your bike.