South Korea stands poised with one of the most future-forward economies in the world and currently ranks as the worlds 13th largest economy. With all of the rapid change, South Korea at times can also be the most resistant to change in terms of sacrificing cultural norms. This resistance in no way seems to inhibit fashion and brand named goods. Instead Koreans have an open mind and wallet to luxury brands such as Gucci, Louis Vuitton and Prada in particular. Korean’s desire for the ‘new’ in terms of fashion is slowly trickling over into architecture as well.
Recognising her demand within the Korean market Miuccia Prada has embraced her place in the Korean hearts over the past five years. First, she teamed up with Korean telecom giant LG to create the sexy and sleek Prada cell phone. Her latest endeavor, which to others and myself initially seemed impossible, was to work with Hyundai, the often-mocked manufacturer of cheap-looking cars, to help remake the company’s image by lending her design elegance and sophistication to a new special edition model for their upscale Genesis brand. The highly acclaimed Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas has not escaped Korea’s attention either. The forward thinking country has sought him out for several design projects, perhaps the most notable of which is his design for the Seoul National University Museum of Arts, completed in 2003-2005.
Koolhaas and Prada have worked together before. He designed the Prada stores in Beverly Hills, San Francisco, and New York, so it was no shock when the savvy design partners teamed up again for a new project in Seoul. South Korea’s capital boasts a massive population of 25 million and has all the energy you would expect from such a mega city. Zooming the focus out further you see that Seoul is situated between two greater giants - Japan and China. Prada and Koohaas’s challenge was to create something unique that also reflected the surroundings. They decided on a pavilion of sorts that is simple, beautiful and incredibly functional.
The Prada Transformer is located on the grounds of the 16th century Gyeonghui Palace, within the downtown core of Seoul and a mere ten-minute walk from the financial district. Large skyscrapers surround the palace. The dichotomy of the past struggling to maintain its hold against the encroaching future was the main image that struck me, with the Transformer almost serving as a bridge between the two. This war between past and future leaves the vast majority of Koreans feeling trapped in the middle; grappling with the tension of trying to keep historical traditions and cultural values alive while feeling the desire to embrace the future and all its possibilities. The country itself could be described as a type of transformer itself.
Leaving cultural struggles aside, the Prada Transformer is an awesome spectacle to behold. It is a tetrahedron-shaped pavilion that was designed for a mixture of art, fashion, film, and Prada culture. The Transformer is designed to house four separate events in total, which will last a total of six months. For every event the Transformer itself will change. Four cranes will come and lift the pavilion, flipping it over so that walls become ceilings, and the floor becomes a wall and so forth. The steel structure is wrapped in an ultra stretchy membrane covering called “Cocoon.” This material was first used by the U.S. army to cover boats and planes that were being put into storage. The white membrane coating allows natural light to come in and illuminate the building by day and emanates a glow by night.
The first exhibition opened Saturday April 25, entitled, “Waist Down: Skirts,” a Prada exhibition featuring Prada’s most eye-catching skirts since 1988. The exhibition itself has toured the world since 2005. The show in Seoul featured a twist as Prada decided to add some freshness to the exhibit by incorporating the skirt designs of eight Korean fashion students. The most impressive student design was an ultra-radiant skirt inspired by traditional Korean paper-folding art, which was hung on an equally impressive prominent copper cast mannequin, branded with PRADA on top.
The advent of the Prada Transformer came with welcoming fanfare from the Korean public. Numerous Korean celebrities graced the grand opening and the first two-month show, “Waist Down,” immediately sold out. Although the Transformer uses a limited space, the exhibition and operations of it made it easy to maneuver and fully take in the sights of both the exhibit and the building. Everything from the location to the building design, the exhibition and the materials used made the Transformer worthy of bearing the name Prada and Koolhaas. The Transformer has plans to leave Seoul after the exhibitions. Although we are not sure where the next show will be, it is certain that it will be next to impossible to find a location where the Transformer can speak so clearly about the general mood and atmosphere of a city and culture in transformation.