Prada Transformer: or the real

The Prada Transformer by Koolhaas, a project known for its kinetic promise, a kind of transformability imbued into the diagram of a tetrahedron which coolly flips over in the hands of Rem Koolhaas.

This image, of Koolhaas flipping the Transformer, is the first thing you see at the pavilions official website. It is in many press releases, it features in dozens of youtube videos, it is the central component of interviews. The image of the flipping transformer is so pervasive, that the common perception is that the transformer flipped many times, that it could flip indefinitely, that Koolhaas had finally invented an architecture of such transformative and transmutable power, that somewhere Cedric Price was giving him a standing ovation.

In reality, the pavilion flips four times, twenty minutes each time. It’s entire 2 years of existence from idea to built work are compressed into a spatial reality that played out in total over the length of a feature film. This is the spectacle of the pavilion, this brief moment of flipping, which required significant resources, four cranes, and incredible amounts of planning.

This is the power of media, of social media, of marketing, all at play in the contemporary, all necessary for the dissemination of idea, of position. When Miuccia Prada refers to the Prada Transformer as the brand's key communication platform in 2009, it represents a nascent power of the pavilion and its separation from the realities of less ephemeral architectures. The pavilion is about spectacle, about image, about the video of rem Koolhaas flipping the pavilion over in his hands while sitting at a desk with Miuccia. The transformer represents the kind of apogee of the cultural artifact of the pavilion, where not only is the pavilion ephemeral, but so too are its programs, its plans, each time turned over, decontextualized, the whole pavilion just a whirling mess of infinite change. The pavilion lends itself very neatly to the discourse of fashion, and the territory within that world that Prada lays claim upon.

This analysis unearths the pavilion’s myriad physical realities, it shows over its lifetime how often it flips (in red), how each face is used, where on the textile envelope it is cut for services, exhausts, doorways, windows, the lengthy and complicated construction project, the periods at which the website was developed, media blitz occurred, and blog posts were posted. In all of this, the actual flipping of the pavilion is a speck in the universe of its existence. And what this reveals, is, with all of the tear down and construction and installation of finishings, and the downtime, and the actual use of the pavilions in between, the flip is inconsequential in a very real way, that its role is superficial, and that what is most important is just that it flips at all, not why, or how, or when, or where. Flip it over, catch it on camera, and a spectacle is born, and that's how Koolhaas did it.

Through a charting of the realities of the pavilion, the possibility of another kind of architecture emerges. Koolhaas himself states, in a beautiful moment of speculation, “Any architectural project we do takes, at least, four or five years, so increasingly there is a discrepancy between the acceleration of culture and the continuing slowness of architecture”. If the Prada Transformer is an attempt to “catch up to culture”, it can thusly be qualified as an entirely superficial one, that this very basic, yet exhaustive excel chart is the drawing of failure. And yet, this view is admittedly limited, rooted as it is in physical realities, superficiality being intrinsically linked with possibility. 

And so, we can ask, “Can we imagine an architecture which can move and adapt and grow, that, as Koolhaas states, “accelerate with culture, gain, “fastness”. And in speculating on its possibility, it also allows us to ask ourself if this is desirable? In any case, what the pavilion illustrates, is that the accelerated architecture we seek already exists in the world of the virtual, in the infinite transmutability of online realities, virtual identities, social media, and augmented reality… as the virtual domain becomes very much manifested with the territory of the real, and as architecture comes to straddle the line between media, information, and the infinitely expansive universe held under the flattened pane of the iPhone, where acceleration has become the organizing logic of all things, where flipping is the normal condition for the nascent built environment of the contemporary, where space and time are compressed to such a degree that indeed, the Prada Transformer is in the world of the virtual, flipping forever.