In the book Tokyo Metabolizing under ‘Changes in Urban Areas of Tokyo at the Beginning of the 21st Century: Architecture as Icon’ Koh Kitayama points to the Prada Aoyama store as an example of the many big name fashion brands purchasing land and building flagship stores in Tokyo following the collapse of the bubble economy in the 1990s.
The 984 square metre property in Minami Aoyama 5-chome was bought for approximately 6 billion yen – about 60 million AUD – in 1999. The year before in 1998 Hermes bought a 580 square metre lot in Ginza for 10 billion yen. Sales in Japan from these high-end brands had surpassed European cities making Japan a major market to compete in. The current Prada building in Aoyama costed 10 billion yen to complete, designed by Swiss firm Herzog and de Meuron.
The resulting design became an instant icon with its easily recognizable diamond-shaped glass facade. Kitayama likens the structure to a bill board, the building becomes advertisement, a marketing tool in itself. Such a symbolic building is almost context-less “the only rule the building obeys in regard to context is an imperceptible one: It is setback from the road.” The symbolic nature of the building has since been reborn again and again along the same street – the tree-lined Ometesando-dori. Walking down I felt I was a kid in a candy shop: SANAA’s Dior, Jun Aoki’s LV building, TOD’s by Toyo Ito and Gyre by MVRDV just to name a few. Each building appears to be a stand alone object, however in their current locations within walking distance of one another (in some cases right next to each other) this phenomenon becomes an accepted norm and not regarded as an insensitive contextless response. In today’s market economies such symbolic capital is valuable and much sought after. Architecture is a prime way to effectively market such capital and is the brand’s best bet to visually distinguish itself from its competitors.
It’s an interesting concept in terms of the architecture and architects themselves. Like the big names from the fashion industry, the architects engaged by these high-end brands are also considered ‘starchitects’ in the architecture profession. There is a good mix of local and international talent, however the ‘local’ architects (Ito,Ando, Aoki, Kuma, SANNA etc) are all very well-known outside Japan as well. Though these designs are visually seductive, the outcome feels as if it is secondary to the name of the architect that would be associated with it. It’s like as if the outcome didn’t matter – no one can tell that the current Prada store is Prada unless they were told; the association occurs after completion. I do feel they are high quality and innovative structures in their own right but found myself wondering how do each of these design ‘features’ improve the inhabitability of the building in terms of comfort and performance? Then I realized that such questions are probably redundant as no one actually lives in these spaces. It would be great if they did, though I guess live/work typologies are hard to implement for big commercial businesses.
Apart from being a very photogenic building it is also one of the most memorable in my experience – while looking around inside I saw Toyo Ito browsing a rack of black Prada coats. Too bad no photography was allowed inside. Those white spectacles really suited him..