prada and the pleasure principle
For the opening last year of its Beverly Hills epicenter, Prada did its best to emulate a typical traffic-stopping Hollywood movie premiere by shutting down Rodeo Drive for the event, thereby assuring its status as a fixture in the Industry. Nicky and Paris Hilton, Nicole Ritchie, Lindsay Lohan, Leonardo Di Caprio, Robert De Niro, Jennifer Aniston, and Brad Pitt assembled to toast the new collaboration between Rem Koolhaas/OMA and Miuccia Prada.
Amid the jet-set glamour, my thoughts strayed to Empire, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri's seminal analysis of capital in the era of globalization. Hardt and Negri conclude that we have entered into an era of momentous transition, in which national governments are withering under the de-territorializing forces of capitalism, while in their stead a new form of imperial sovereignty emerges. The diffuse network they call "Empire" replaces the old model of center and periphery with a placeless network of flows and hierarchies. Power, in Empire, emanates from the global network instead of from any one place. Its three tiers, which function as checks and balances on one another, extend Empire&aposts power to all realms: monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy, forms of sovereignty that in turn correspond to the Bomb (American military superiority and nuclear supremacy), Money (the economic wealth of the G7), and Ether (the realm of the media, culture, and the global telecommunications network). Although these tiers are placeless, and any beachhead temporarily established is quickly destabilized by the deterritorializing nature of Empire itself, Hardt and Negri suggest that "new Romes" rise up to control them: Washington, D.C., for the Bomb; New York for Money; and Los Angeles for Ether.
So it was that Prada brought OMA to the capital of Ether last summer. It would seem to be no accident that the two North American Prada epicenters are located in the capitals of Money and Ether respectively. (Washington, D. C., doesn't wear Prada, and the most naked form of power, the Bomb doesn't need fashion to legitimate itself.) Comparing these two epicenters, it seems entirely plausible that Koolhaas plotted them to reflect their status in Empire. The New York Prada aims directly at Wall Street and the fashion industry, while the Beverly Hills epicenter addresses Ether. To this end, Prada New York (installed in a loft building that once housed the Guggenheim-SOHO) draws the visitor down into the "wave," a mock auditorium constructed of zebrawood, supposedly intended to accommodate cultural gatherings. This seems like a calculated play to New York&aposs image of itself: not only the capital of money, but also a seat of enduring culture and good taste where conversations about, something like Empire might take place in ultra-hip commercial spaces. No doubt the OMA offshoot AMO would organize the event. Above all, however, the zebrawood wave asserts the gesture of the architect as form-giver.
In Beverly Hills, the focus is all on the grand entrance. On a street marked by over-the-top form (Frank Lloyd Wright's peculiar 1952 Anderton Court is across the street), OMA drew an aluminum curtain over the entrance, which spans the entire 45-foot shop front. The facade is thus undone, reduced to a blind surface hovering over a void. To some degree, this is meant to signify openness to the throngs of Midwestern and foreign tourists on Rodeo Drive. And indeed, compared to Bijan, a men&aposs clothing store catering to a clientele with monthly income of at least $1 million, Prada with its prêt-à-porter line is merely a merchandiser for the masses. But the facade's openness is deceiving: intense, black-clad greeters (are they salesmen or private security force?) ensure that the riff-raff are intimidated enough to stay on the sidewalk. Still, this extravagant gesture of openness alludes to the reputed informality of Los Angeles, and to theater. For like the Paris Opéra, Prada Beverly Hills is centered on its stairs. Taking a cue from Morris Lapidus, Koolhaas draws us into the store with the promise of a fabulous ascent up a grand staircase. On the second floor, glass panels alternately alternate between opaque and transparent, according to an inscrutable logic. Walls of Swiss-cheese-like green polyurethane suggest Prada's use of materials in unexpected ways.
The continued commitment to technology at Prada Beverly Hills is remarkable. The New York store is rumored to have cost $40 million, a monstrous amount to expend in a year during which the company only declared $28.6 million in profits. Much of this was spent on technology to somehow make shopping more efficient, a venture that proved largely pointless. Where New York's technology was largely intended to work its magic from behind the scenes, the Beverly Hills epicenter is more explicitly filled with technology to distract one from shopping.
The most impressive bit of high-tech is visible for those up early enough to be at the store when it opens at 10 in the morning. In what can only be seen as another theatrical gesture, lights flash on either side of the entrance and an alarm sounds rhythmically as the aluminum wall shrouding the shop at night sinks and finally vanishes into the ground, a process that takes around a minute. But technology also lurks everywhere within. On the second floor, a video display picturing Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld hangs among women&aposs blouses. Geopolitics as diversion? How could they be viewed any other way in a Prada store! Across the way, on a plasma screen, out-of-date "regional news" crawls slowly across Italian Renaissance ceiling frescoes; on one occasion, programming included the breaking story of Minutemen hunting border-crossers in Arizona, a story reported two months earlier by the rest of the media. On the third floor, a wall is littered with curious statistics. How many Americans own DVD players? How much money do they earn? Interesting information, but why doesn't Prada just keep copies of the State of the Nation Atlas or USA Today on hand for customers to peruse?
Stopping to think back for a moment, it should be mentioned that Koolhaas conceived of the Beverly Hills store at the height of the dot.com era, which may explain why it seems like a late arrival from that period. More charitably, if Koolhaas was indeed addressing the capital of Ether, what choice did he have? Ether is, after all, not just Hollywood, but the global telecommunications network that is the cornerstone of Empire itself. And the content of that network is only incidental to its structural dominance. In his review of the store for Architectural Record, Joseph Giovannini observed that the screens full of "content" are, in fact, empty:
With no real context, the image flow on the screens turns into a form of indecipherable visual noise that shoppers barely graze, if that. The graphs become fleeting observations, statistical cartoons .... If Koolhaas cedes form to content, then the judgment of his store rests on its content, which tends to remain superficial. Above all a mythmaker, the architect offers up an elegant box of mythology | set on the notion of breaking open commerce to culture. Here, the avant-garde posture and critical stance, rather than the information itself, creates the buzz: The myth of content is greater than the actual content or the message.
Although the content of the latest Prada epicenter may be less than it purports to be, that cannot be said for Giovannini&aposs thumbnail review, which is in fact also a thinly veiled indictment of Content, the 2004 sequel to S,M,L,XL, first published in 1998.
Indeed, although OMA/AMO&aposs latest book has its moments, on the whole it virtually begs the reader to come away agreeing with Giovannini that "the myth of content is greater than the actual content." The oversaturated layout exploits amateurism and deliberately courts revulsion. Numerous utterly content-less spreads, such as "In Memory Of," to Prada San Francisco, the "Box vs. Blob" match, or the "Baalbeck" tour waste pages more effectively than Bruce Mau&aposs layout for S,M,L, XL. Ever since AMO&aposs special issue of Wired magazine, the office seems to be thoroughly infatuated by what Edward Tufte calls "chartjunk." When one of two Siamese-twin shape-building-monsters at the start of Content remarks to the other, "I&aposm not sure if this is a book or magazine," and the other replies "Actually, I find the tension between the two super-interesting," it is impossible to construe as anything but sarcasm. Why the lack of content in Content? Just possibly, the book is nothing more than filler. After all, it is a chronicle of a number of troubled years at OMA, documenting a multitude of cancelled projects and designs that pale in comparison to the work gathered in S, M, L, XL. During its flirtation with dot.com culture, content, or rather the myth of content is all the firm had left. Things only start looking up with the revival of "shape" in the latest projects|notably the Casa da Musica and the Seattle Public Library|a strategy that Bob Somol describes in his two-page spread "12 Reasons to Get Back into Shape."
What are we to make of this near-death experience for OMA and its triumphant return? It could be ascribed to the gap that opened up with the departure of key designers such as Winy Maas and Fuminori Hoshino, and the latter to the cultivation of the new generation that would eventually succeed them, such as Joshua Ramus and Ole Scheeren. Or it could be the record of a firm that became over-enthusiastic about a Zeitgeist that turned out to be not so much spirit as a phantasm. But when Koolhaas is involved, nothing is ever simple, and that would be too simple an explanation.
On the contrary, I would suggest that Content is a signal intervention in a theoretical debate, even if that theory, as may be appropriate for this "post-critical" moment, is not argued directly, but rather by implication. Content|and even the absence of content in Content|underscores Koolhaas&aposs position in the discipline. Over the last two decades, he has shared with his polar opposite, Peter Eisenman, the role of embodying the discipline's two dominant neo-avant-garde movements. For if Eisenman's career has been defined by a sustained engagement with architecture through the reconsideration of form, Koolhaas's has been defined by a parallel reconsideration of program, a.k.a. content. Eisenman and Koolhaas correspond to the two kinds of authors that philosopher Giorgio Agamben describes in his The Man Without Content. Using a distinction first made by Jean Paulhan in Les fleurs de Tarbes, Agamben explains that for rhetoricians, all meaning dissolves into form, while terrorists seek a language so real that, as he puts it, in its "flame the sign would be fully consumed, putting the writer face to face with the Absolute."
Eisenman is the architectural rhetorician of our day while Koolhaas is our terrorist. Over the years, each has made it his mission to take his position to its limit, relentlessly reducing architecture to form and content respectively. But this is not merely a game of classifying neo-avant-gardes. On the contrary, reading Koolhaas through Agamben not only complicates Koolhaas's position, but also Agamben's argument. At once, we are faced with a problem. Agamben condemns the terrorist as a misologist, pronouncing his quest for absolute meaning null and void:
In order to leave the evanescent world of forms, he has no other means than form itself, and the more he wants to erase it, the more he has to concentrate on it to render it permeable to the inexpressible content he wants to express.
In Agamben's analysis, the artist who seeks absolute essence must by necessity turn to the absolute essence of the work, which means the dismissal of any content. But when the work turns out to be void of content, it reveals itself as pure inessence:
If the artist now seeks his certainty in a particular content or faith, he is lying, because he knows that pure artistic subjectivity is the essence of everything; but if he seeks his reality in pure artistic subjectivity, he finds himself in the paradoxical condition of having to find his own essence precisely in the inessential, his content in what is mere form. His condition, then, is that of a radical split; and outside of this split, everything is a lie.
The result, Agamben concludes, is that the artist is the man without content, with "no other identity than a perpetual emerging out of the nothingness of expression and no other ground than this incomprehensible station on this side of himself."
If my reading of Koolhaas confirms Agamben's analysis, it also traces a philosophical distinction. For what is it beyond meaningless forms that informs Content? Is Content not deliberately a junkspace of chartjunk, information reduced to schematic diagrams and cartoons? Perversely, Content is at its strongest in the return to form, or shape, without logic, as empty as Eisenman's own systematic evacuation of meaning in architecture, but blunter, strategically dispensing with the brilliant rigor and relentless method that always characterize the American's work. Koolhaas's madness is to push program to the extreme, at which point it dissolves into meaningless infographics, and then to reduce the building itself to a subset of graphic design | exposing the "return to form" as ultimately empty.
But the interest here is as much historiographical as it is theoretical, and returns us once again to Agamben. Having exposed the artist as the man without content, Agamben cites Hegel's familiar verdict on art in the first part of his Lectures on Aesthetics:
But while on the one hand we give this high position to art, it is on the other hand just as necessary to remember that neither in content nor in form is art the highest and absolute mode of bringing to our minds the true interests of the spirit. "¬¶ In all these respects art, considered in its highest vocation, is and remains for us a thing of the past.
The artist, Agamben agrees, does indeed appear in a dark light: "At the extreme limit of art's destiny, when all the gods fade in the twilight of art's laughter, art is only a negation that negates itself, a self-annihilating nothing." But Agamben does not end his project here. On the contrary, his goal is to open a line of argument with a particular vision of Hegel as the author of a teleological history, punctual and final, a history unfolding in the present, a history that seeks to shut down rather than open up. In this vision, Hegel's idea of the dialectic has an end in self-transcendence, in the full unfolding of the Hegelian system itself. Against such a moment of closure, however, Agamben proposes a Nietzschean history of eternal recurrence in which art is the very core of the will to power:
[T]he man [of art], starting from the ultimate tensions of the creative principle, has experienced in himself the nothingness that demands a shape and has reversed this experience into extreme approbation of life, into adoration of appearance understood as 'eternal joy of becoming, this joy that carries in itself the joy of annihilation.'
But why eternal recurrence? I would like to shift from Nietzsche to Freud here to expose the rationale underpinning this seemingly mad system. In Beyond the Pleasure Principle, the founder of psychoanalysis describes the drive toward life and death. After an organism comes into being from a plenum of inanimate matter, Freud hypothesizes, it carries with it a desire to return to this undifferentiated state, the death drive or pleasure principle. If, however, the organism experiences "the influx of fresh amounts of stimulus" through a traumatic moment such as a union with another, it can go on living or, if the stimulus is strong enough, reproduce.
If architecture has a death drive today, than surely it is Ether. Indeed, media has been a perpetual external threat to architecture since the dawn of modernity. The archdeacon Follo's cry, "This will kill that," in the Hunchback of Nôtre-Dame, underscores the fact that it is the book's much more effective capacity to carry content that undermined the dominance of the cathedral, both architectural and religious. A century and a half later, when theory|at the height of its excesses|suggested that textuality could utterly replace building, this was only a dress-rehearsal for the condition we face today: an immaterial world of Ether that erodes the physical far more effectively than the book, with its material form, ever did. Who would trade a building for a notebook computer and an Internet connection with a fat pipe? Certainly in this day of AutoCAD and overseas clients, few architects would. To do so would be tantamount to leaving the contemporary world. And yet, if the Bomb and Money both require architectural representation as part of their force, the fundamentally ephemeral force of Ether does not, a fact that accounts, historically, for the remarkable lack of significant architecture in Hollywood. Under pressure from Ether, architecture threatens to dissipate into chartjunk, on the one hand, and output from computer animation programs on the other.
In this light, then, Prada-Beverly Hills is a deliberate encounter with ambient information, a low point in the cycle of the pleasure principle. Indeed, Koolhaas survived his confrontation with the anaesthetic forces of Ether at Prada and in Content to produce perhaps the best work in his career, the Seattle Public Library, a building that actively engages with the fate of architecture in this new world of content but remains a library nonetheless. What architects do with this lesson remains to be seen. Will architects face Ether head on and thrive on its annihilating forces or let the field dissipate in it, smothered by its velvety darkness once and for all?
 Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire (Durham: Duke University Press, 2000). For a further analysis of Ether's importance for architecture see the project by this author in collaboration with Robert Sumrell as AUDC, "Ether. The One Wilshire Building," in Verb 3: Connection (Barcelona: ACTAR, 2005), 34-49.
 To be fair, Lapidus was always more interested in the descent. Also, he used to say that people are like moths, they are drawn to the light. The staircase ascends into darkness, thereby violating "the Moth Complex." See Morris Lapidus, Too Much is Never Enough, (New York: Rizzoli, 1996).
 Here Koolhaas echoes the work of Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, whose Decorated Shed ultimately resolved itself in similar terms, as for example at their 1967 NFL Hall of Fame, in which architecture dissolved into pure infographics. Perhaps it is not coincidental that Koolhaas features an interview with Venturi and Scott Brown in Content.