Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas has always had an unorthodox approach to his profession. He takes a research-based/anthropological approach to his work and is constantly gathering data on urban trends to create buildings that better reflect contemporary society. So it came as no surprise when he began collecting data on America’s favorite pastime: shopping.
He performed his research in concert with graduate students at Harvard’s Design School where he teaches. The result is the epic Harvard Design School Guide to Shopping, an amalgamation of student research, professional essays, graphics and imagery—all presided over by Koolhaas. Startling statistics fill the book. For example, there is 31 square feet of retail space for every person in the United States versus four square feet per person in Europe (Ellen Tien, “A Harvard Shopping Guide? Charge It,” NY Times, December 16, 2001). This fact is manifested in Koolhaus’ design for New York City’s flagship Prada store, completed in 2001. The store has 24,000 square feet of space, much of it taken up by a large wooden staircase and half-pipe and an elevator that accommodates 20 people. Very little space, frankly, is dedicated to the merchandise. Perhaps the store’s biggest attraction is the dressing rooms, which are enclosed in clear glass and fill with an electrical current that makes the glass opaque when occupied.
With the New York Prada store, Koolhaas used the data he collected on shopping to create a commercial space that defies conventional expectations. The Prada store can be seen as a spectacle, and shopping as one of the last shared experiences left in contemporary society. While this approach may subvert a shopper’s expectations, it’s also an optimistic statement that combines world-class architecture with the often mundane shopping experience.
- What kind of information do you think Koolhaas might have collected about shopping?
- What is he trying to communicate with this building?
- How can a building’s design influence people’s behaviors inside?