A new profile rises almost 200 feet above the tangled web of railroad tracks cutting across southern Milan, dominating the otherwise flat skyline. Following the white concrete nine-story beacon to its source will land you in the OMA-designed Prada Foundation, officially inaugurated in 2015 (the tower was originally scheduled to open at this time). As the final notch in the Prada family’s campus–which boasts a pastel-soaked Wes Anderson-designed cafe-bar, a mirrored cinema, and a gold-leaf-encrusted “Haunted House” amid the century-old refurbished warehouses–Torre, the long-delayed tower is an appropriately startling final act for a foundation that intends to “activate and challenge the senses,” according to its Press Officer Nicolo Scialanga.
“It’s not a passive building,” OMA’s Federico Pompignoli says simply of the tower. Working with Rem Koolhaas and Chris van Duijn, Pompignoli has overseen every conceivable aspect of the Foundation’s design since the start of the firm’s collaboration with the Prada family, even moving to the Italian city in 2013 to be closer to the construction. “Instead, every single space becomes a special occasion, an opportunity to curate oneself.” We are sitting on the cantilevering terrace outside the sixth-floor restaurant on perfect Milanese afternoon. The furniture flanks the glassy wall, which retreats to the original alignments of the building while exposing the bar inside. As the triangular terrace narrows, it meets the glass wall at what Pompignoli refers to as the “total convergence point” of the building. It’s among his favorite details in the zig-zagging tower.
“We are not fans of the white cube,” admits Pompignoli. “So when Miuccia Prada gave us a brief to develop a building responding to this display condition, we responded with a series of vertical variations that test the architecture as well as the art.” But to merely call the building idiosyncratic would be to ignore the calculated irregularity of the building, which plays out through three main conditions. The floor shape, height, and orientation are used “as axonometrics” to develop nine floors that are “completely different” from each other, suggests Pompignoli. The result is sort of like an architectural Rubik’s Cube, where each floor’s unique style can play out independently and in unexpected ways while remaining rooted to the others through the building’s concrete core. “It’s an attempt at the white cube defying its own boringness,” says Pompignoli.
The result is a space that not only stretches vertically, but somehow also through all directions at once. The windows start at under nine feet tall on the first floor and expand to nearly three times this height by the top level. This plasticity creates a sense of mounting anticipation (perhaps a more fitting name here than their recent Parisian project) through not just expanding space but also ever-increasing light. Ascending the tower, the grassy abandon of the railway tracks is replaced by Milan’s receding skyscrapers to the north, which ultimately yield to the brilliant blue sky by the time you hit the restaurant on the sixth floor. Cool light washes over the kitsch interiors of the restaurant, featuring ceramic pieces by Lucio Fontana; it’s more bourgeois Italian Grandma than bleak white cube minimalism.
“Like the Prada Foundation at large, the tower is a vertical sequence of surprises and challenges,” suggests Pompignioli. This sensation is magnified by the dynamic floorplan and orientation of the six floors of gallery space, which alternates the glass side from north to east on each floor while maintaining the same silhouette. As you linger in the galleries to take in the art–a sampling of Miuccia Prada’s contemporary collection, ranging from impaled cadillacs by Walter De Maria to Carsten Höller’s magic twirling mushrooms–each level of the tower feels like a new space, without requiring (or justifying) an explanation. Thankfully, OMA seems less than interested in revealing the logic behind their magic tricks of space and light, preferring, like the tower, to leave much up in the air.
This motif plays out in another of the architect’s favorite spots: the “ghost” scissored staircase backlit with two-tone millennial pink fluorescence, and where a sheet of glass separates two sets of public and emergency stairs–one white, the other gray– that never meet. In addition to the vertical expansion, OMA’s surprises also lie in the details: like the bathrooms on the second and eighth floors. I start to protest about the cladding detail in the first-floor bathrooms, where individual mirrored stalls open into a trippy black and lime green gridded washroom that conceals the door leading to the toilets. His response is just about as close as you can get to a riddle without telling one: “It could be true that we should make the handles a bit more clear, but it is also true that if you find yourself in a toilet, somewhere there should be a door.”
Ultimately, the tower is a space where the curious and the wanderers will be rewarded. In this sense, it is a decisive contrast to the standard operating logic of the white cube. There’s also plenty of moments for second glances–like the view from the staircase between the sixth and seventh floors, which gives a spectacular view down to the tower’s burly support beam that anchors into the rooftop of a century-old distillery warehouse–and for serendipitous encounter, like an apparent dead-end that leads into the second floor’s gallery space (where Jeff Koons’ bouquet of candy-colored steel tulips is presented like a reward).
Above all, there’s a feeling of triumph that hits when you stumble out onto the restaurant terrace–out of breath and disoriented from the climb up the staircase–and you are rewarded with a panoramic view of Milan’s skyline. “The rooftop terrace is the last surprise of this tower,” explains Pompignioli. “For us, it’s another opportunity for public programming, a place to go that’s not necessarily linked to the art.” A closer look at the surface of terrace reveals the exact same type of brick used on to pave Prada Foundation’s outdoor campus some 60 meters below: a public space that can be accessed without buying a ticket to the exhibitions. With its own entrance directly from the street, the restaurant connects the Foundation to the rest of the city in unprecedented ways. “Here, we are inviting the city to see itself from an entirely new perspective.”