Now that Prada has opened its $83 million Tokyo Epicenter store, it can claim to be the the only retailer with flagships designed by two different sets of architects who have won the Pritzker Prize, the field’s top award. And if the designer of the company’s SoHo store, Rem Koolhaas, is architecture’s equivalent of a rock star, its equally brilliant Tokyo collaborators, Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, have the personas of scientists. The pair shot to prominence with their transformation of an English power station into the Tate Modern art museum, but they’re more concerned with building great architecture than their personal profiles.
Prada’s Tokyo store, in the city’s Aoyama district, is representative of their affinity for geometric designs, and is already admired for its faceted windows upon which patterns of light are projected from dusk until dawn, making the building appear to melt or pulse from within. Inside, “sound showers” and touchscreen “snorkels” expand shoppers’ experience to the aural and tactile dimensions.
In a telephone interview with WWD from the company’s base in Basel, Switzerland, Jacques Herzog discussed his inspiration for the store, how Prada’s competitors are already trying to copy it, and why he’s not obsessed with shopping.
WWD: When you started thinking about this store, did you decide you wanted to create a spectacle for the brand’s sake, or was it meant to lure shoppers in?
Herzog: Like a trap, you mean? Whatever a company does, every store is in some ways a trap. But we laid it out like a market rather than a trap. Everything is laid down, laying flat horizontally, which is different than any other store. It’s really about seeing, perceiving, touching, looking, getting involved. And this is very human, very much bound to our daily experience. But it’s much stronger, much more enhanced. So people may feel — you know, maybe this sounds a bit stupid — closer by themselves.
And maybe this animates them to go shopping. Maybe not. I can’t say. It’s just, I think, a different feeling than they may have had before. I think the store, because it’s so different and so new, will be just like, ‘oooh.’ People will just feel very interested in going to such a store. And I guess they would like to have a part of that store, to own a part of that store — which would be Prada merchandise, Prada stuff. But we didn’t do a concept based on psychological issues and tests and marketing. The sheer qualities of architecture, in the way that it teases all of your senses, is what should make people feel great and serve as a platform for better sales.WWD: What kind of crowds are you expecting? Do you think the store will become a tourist destination? The SoHo store has been overwhelmed by sightseers, and it’s taking its toll on the store. Considering yours cost nearly twice as much, is it ready for them?
Herzog: That’s something that subtly changes over time, and at the beginning, we’re prepared for this kind of thing, which is something that we are used to from when the Tate opened and we were overwhelmed and needed much more staff. And this touches upon maintenance and how the materials will withstand all of these things, especially because they are materials which are very fragile.
But this is also a conscious strategy to be very careful and to move in a different way. And that is related to a different culture in Asia. The building in Tokyo could not be in New York or in Switzerland. All of these questions are somehow related to the design. Otherwise they would not be interesting. You know, the design response to this — touching, and being involved totally physically and mentally — is the concept of the building. You want to be involved, just as you are involved sometimes in nature — in a meadow or under a tree or near a river — even if it’s a totally artificial world technologically speaking and materials-wise.
WWD: Is this a sea change in the nature of retailing — providing an entertainment environment at all times, in which you happen to be selling to them? Or is this possible only in Japan? Or with Prada?
Herzog: I cannot predict a way shopping will go. People have always been interested in shopping and probably always will be, and the best conditions to get people animated are always changing based on the times we’re in.
But right now, this seems to be a very interesting strategy. It’s also a strategy where you can get involved in really great architecture. If this wouldn’t be an interesting strategy, you could say, “I don’t give a shit about great architecture. Why don’t we go for great lamp design?” or whatever, and go for other strategies. But Miuccia Prada and Prada as a company thought it would be great to go for the best possible architects of this time and go for a few stores that would express that.WWD: How much of the store’s appeal to shoppers is due to the fact that it is a “Herzog & de Meuron” store? Prada has been accused of trading off Rem Koolhaas’ cool in the SoHo store and vice versa. Do you think you’re being perceived the same way?
Herzog: I think it could be a way that customers perceive it because you seem to perceive it in such a way, and everybody who’s close to design and the art world will immediately make the link between us and Prada and Prada and Rem and ourselves and Rem (and we have been collaborating), and this is okay. It’s just one facet of it. But we should not overestimate it. Of course, people like these kinds of background stories, and what could be behind them, and what’s their idea, what’s the common thing and what’s the difference? So it triggers stories and rumors, and I think that belongs to the art world as much as to the fashion world, and all these different worlds today are somewhat connected, because every filmmaker knows what the more interesting architects are doing and vice versa, and the same is right for artists and fashion designers, etc., etc.
WWD: What were the visual inspirations for the store?
Herzog: It’s a hybrid of old-fashioned, 19th-century English stores, or even Prada Milan — with the curved glasses: you know, the glass vitrines. It also has moments or aspects of medieval bursa. It looks like a child’s drawing of a little house. It’s also like a tower in a smaller version, or like a crystal, so it combines different facets.
At the same time, I like our architecture to release almost controversial images, but it doesn’t fix you in this or that or only one way to see it. It’s one space, because no floor is cutting all the way through. It’s very spatial, it’s a round blob kind of thing, with all these horizontal tubes. It’s about intimacy and large scale and smaller scale.WWD: What aspects of the store can be adapted to retail in general? What can we learn about shopping from this?
Herzog: I am sorry to disappoint you, because I can’t make such a general statement about shopping or retail from just this one building, which is really meant to be in Japan and for Tokyo and has all these issues of the materials and the shyness of the people and it’s being unique for Prada — it’s the first building they’ve ever done from scratch. It somehow has moments which remind you of Prada Milan with the bent glass, or the Simpsons department store in London. Or the bent glass you see in optical lenses. Perceiving and looking are much more in the foreground than [other] finished stores. Those were never really in the foreground. Very rarely in our architecture do we see something existing in terms of architecture as a model for something we would like to do. Rather, it’s fragments of things which very often come from outside the world of architecture.
WWD: Was it just intuition, then? Where did you start from?
Herzog: Yeah, it’s a lot of intuition. Of course, we said, “How is the merchandise displayed in the Prada stores — in this store, in that store? How would you want to do it? How could it be different? Plus, how does Prada want to display its stuff?” So the building offers this potential to do it in many different ways.
WWD: Considering the technology investment in the store, and how quickly that [not to mention fashion] becomes obsolete, will you have to tear it all out in a decade? How long is this building meant to last?
Herzog: Oh, I think that technology is the one thing that changes much faster than the snorkels, which will survive, containing different information, or will then change into lamps or sound showers as some already do now. I think they have the potential to be altered over the years. This is the case with the whole building. I would like this building to become a classic, like the Milan store, and become a flagship, really, for Prada worldwide. So Milan is now their most interesting store — the founding store. And New York can have one of these, the SoHo store, and Prada Tokyo Aoyama, our building, has the potential to become a real classic, but who knows? All our designs, ideally, if you love them, and maintain them well, are also ready for transformation. Maybe it could become a disco, or a restaurant, or a museum. But it has the potential to remain an important element of the identity of that company.WWD: Can it be copied at this point? Or are the Epicenter stores too iconic now?
Herzog: I think it’s already happening. If you look on the Internet, there are quite a few things happening which look like great structures and even famous fashion brands are doing this already.
WWD: Can you toss out a few names?
Herzog: I have forgotten the names. (Laughs)
WWD: Would you like to work on another retail project soon? Did you take away a new appreciation for shopping?
Herzog: I am interested in every single element of what architecture can do and what urbanism can offer you —and shopping and retail are certainly important. But it’s not that I believe we are in a key moment in history when shopping is changing into something else. Shopping will always just be shopping, you know. I think everybody likes to shop and get new things. It’s just that some people spend more time with it and have more fun doing it. And, as I said, if you buy vegetables form the market, or clothes from the Prada store, or a pair of old shoes in a market in Morocco, it’s all interesting, and they all create specific conditions of urban behavior. It’s all about urbanism, in fact. It all relates to how rich a city is, and what variety it offers you, and which is the right model for the right place. It’s not the luxury thing, or that bag or that particular moment or that particular kind of merchandise that interests me.
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