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OMA Palermo Atlas: Applying Architectural Thinking to Fashion

21.05.19, Rotterdam

Rem Koolhaas’s Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) is a leading architecture studio known for its work on some of the most iconic buildings of our time. In the world of fashion OMA, and its research studio AMO, are responsible for the beloved Fondazione Prada, Fondation Galeries Lafayette  and the ongoing re-modelling of Berlin’s iconic department store Kadewe. Meanwhile, the Office’s long-standing relationship with Prada has brought philosophical thinking to runway scenography and delivered the one of a kind multi-purpose New York store Epicenter, which 10 years on, remains futuristic as ever. 

Our reason for meeting OMA’s Architects Giacomo Ardesio and Giulio Margheri extended past their expertise of working with fashion powerhouses. Instead, we wanted to find out if AMO’s recent collaboration with Manifesta, a European Nomadic Biennial, holds beneficial lessons for brands and fashion entrepreneurs. What made the 12th edition of Manifesta Biennial different from previous editions was AMO’s site-specific urban study of the host city – Sicily’s capital Palermo. The aim was to help organisers navigate a program of cultural activities through the city’s rich and complex history. The findings of the study were edited, condensed and later published by Humboldt Books under the title Palermo Atlas 

Fascinated by the project’s multi-layered examination of Palermo I wondered whether in-depth, location-based research could provide a more holistic and sustainable approach for brands and retailers to connect with the communities they operate in for the benefit of all involved? Starting with this question our conversation naturally expands to designing retail spaces, ingraining customer engagement and perception of sustainability across fashion and architecture. 

AC: Giulio & Giacomo, it’s a pleasure to meet you and I’m excited to find out more about OMA / AMO’s work. Starting with your backgrounds, could you introduce yourselves and your roles here at the Office for Metropolitan Architecture? 

Giacomo Ardesio: Hi Natalia! I studied in Milan and worked in Italy, for a certain period also in India, eventually coming to Rotterdam to join OMA in 2014. Beyond the Office, I’ve been involved in teaching activities and an architecture collective. If you look through the structure of OMA you’ll find a lot of these self-organised groups that carry out either research or work.  

AC: And Giulio, could you tell us about your background and how you got to work at OMA / AMO? 

Giulio Margheri: I’m also an architect; I studied in Florence and worked in some of the city’s architecture offices. Then I spent a year at the Strelka Institute, an institute of architecture, media and design where you get to see and work with journalists, directors with a lot of different disciplines. That’s something that nowadays I find very useful. I did one project with other people at the Institute that was curated by AMO and ended up fitting in with the Office.  

AC: Could you explain your roles and tasks at the Office’s internal think tank, AMO? 

Giacomo: The thing that we mostly do together with Giulio is Prada fashion shows, with Ippolito Pestellini Laparelliwas as the partner in charge. There is a sort of galaxy of things that we do together with this main occupation, but the team structure changes according to each project. 

Giulio: Prada production is quite broad because it goes from fashion shows to assignments on graphics and digital media. Throughout the years it evolved to many other tasks around the production of fashion shows. As a team, we also worked on an exhibition for La Rinascente and a project for the Milan Trianalle for Fiera Prospettiva.  

“Together with Manifesta, we decided that the exhibition wouldn’t take place in a conventional place of art in the city.”

AC: I’d like to find out about your work with the 2018 Manifesta biennial, which resulted in a publication titled Palermo Atlas. Could you tell us about this project, its goals and your approach? 

Giacomo: Manifesta has always been a biennial that travels but it’s a little difficult to approach a city like Palermo. So, they decided to contact AMO, for its expertise as a think tank in urban logic, to have a more thorough urban research that could stay as a base for the curatorial approach. This eventually became a bigger piece of accumulated knowledge and I think it makes sense to have some sort of urban research for a travelling entity like Manifesta. If it was Venice Biennale, that’s always in the same venue or Paris Fashion Week, then there is nothing unexplored. Manifesta needs to build on top of a context of where they are doing the biennial, to derive a site-specific curatorial approach.  

Giulio: The assignment was divided into 2 parts. One part was content-related, for which the Office was asked to develop a series of potentially interesting topics related to the city. This was done partially here and partially through field research in Palermo, emerging in a sort of atlas of potential ideas and topics to develop in the later phase of the project. On the other side, the project was something that was related to the physical presence of the exhibition and together with Manifesta, we decided that the exhibition wouldn’t take place in a conventional place of art in the city. We had intense moments of doing visits, meeting people who were opening mansions or places that were potentially interesting. Palermo has quite a complex story, also of its build environment, so opening up a series of these places was already giving us an idea of the current status of the city or the phases that it went through over the years.

Giacomo: The fact that the exhibition was eventually dispersed through the urban fabric of the city centre, but also with a lot of venues almost in other municipalities, meant that field research went beyond the boundaries of Palermo. I think it’s a very interesting format for a biennial to be so dispersed because, as a context, Palermo has a lot to offer and hasn’t been completely gentrified by tourism.  

Giulio: That makes it a delicate process, especially if it’s spread out across the city and not based in a museum.  

AC: Was Palermo Atlas, a publication of your research and observations on the city, something that you planned to share with the general public from the beginning of the project?   

Giulio: The project started more as an internal exchange, and it wasn’t planned as a publication but at some point, they found it quite rich and decided to make this internal research the catalogue of the exhibition itself. 

Giacomo: The catalogue was edited, text added and some parts removed, then it expanded to the product that you see here, Palermo Atlas. 

AC: Was OMA’s research process for this project different from the usual approach? How did you go about designing the study?  

Giulio: Every research has its own story, there is no preform that we apply. A lot of things were based on our observations and ideas of potential things that were actual and contemporary, at the same time we were testing the assumptions to prove their correctness. 

Giacomo: Urban research for architects is usually either quantitative or map-based, but you don’t see many maps inside Palermo Atlas. What’s interesting is that you see preconceived knowledge on how to do urban research; a refined selection that could guide you through a series of topics. I think it was somehow a unique product compared to other urban researches because it’s a wide spectrum from journalistic to historical references, from clichés to the unexpected. The aim was to find some specific angles that were carefully curated because the product needed to be refined to reach a wider public. All these themes were sharpened to make a unique story.  

Giulio: One of the hypotheses that we set from the beginning was to give a different spectrum of the reality of the city. Many of the more cliché elements are not present, or they are present but in a different light and represent something else than clichés. 

“It’s a wide spectrum from journalistic to historical references, from clichés to the unexpected.”

AC: Have you experienced working on retail or fashion-related projects that required a comparable depth of research? 

Giacomo: The brands we usually work with are in very established neighbourhoods. We’ve never had an assignment from a fashion brand requiring us to do a special pop up for example. 

AC: Do you think detailed site-specific research could be beneficial in fashion, when doing pop-ups, opening stores or staging off-site catwalk shows? 

Giulio: Considering the speed of these projects, I see that as being difficult to include, in a practical way. There is also another limit, which is that we often work in cities, which are well established, there is a legacy, where clients already have an image and it belongs to that place.  

Giacomo: What’s interesting from our point of view is something like Louis Vuitton choosing modern masterpieces, showingin a JFK Terminal or before that in Brazil in Niemeyer’s Niteroi Contemporary Art Museum.  

Giulio: They tend to engage with the topic, not with the place. 

Giacomo: On the contrary, their target market is not people from the local community; the people who can afford these products are maybe somebody else. It’s more globalised and not local but maybe you can imagine that for a smaller brand or another reason.

Major brands are global actors, even if they try to pursue locality, they would have to do it with a global objective.”

AC: Do you think brands could benefit from engaging with their direct communities and localities, could this help create businesses that are more successful and attuned?  

Giulio: I think this is happening more. Prada does many such projects, for example, they invite classes of school kids to visit production facilities. They host lectures on innovative futures with Yale University like  “Shaping a Sustainable Future Society”, opening up this luxury world and inviting people in. That’s another way to put themselves as a pivotal element to attract and discuss one topic, it’s not only for local citizens, nor is it strictly speaking about fashion, but involving other creative industries.   

Giacomo: But speaking of locality, I think it’s more complicated. Major brands are global actors, even if they try to pursue locality, they would have to do it with a global objective to reach their customers from all around the world.  

Stores will need to become accumulators of brand image, somewhere for customers to understand the aura of a brand.”


AC: Let’s turn the topic of customer engagement to bricks-and-mortar retail. How do you address slowing interest for in-store shopping when designing or re-modelling retail architecture, like Berlin’s iconic Kadewe department store? How do you hope to entice customers to visit these stores?  

Giacomo: Kadewe is a very broad project, it’s one of the biggest department stores and the strategy is to divide it with four different identities to work as independent department stores, each with its categories and its inner logic. The insertion of architectural moments was made to redefine the identity of the department store. For fashion in general, more and more people are purchasing goods online, yet you have a physical space to have an experience 

Giulio: Stores will need to become accumulators of brand image, somewhere for customers to understand the aura of a brand. You can purchase from a brand online, but the store is where you go to have a full experience and an understanding of why you should buy from them. I think this idea of understanding a brand and its positioning is becoming more relevant since customers do the shopping online. 

“Department stores are becoming more like museums and museums are becoming more like department stores.”

Giacomo: To discuss this specifically, there is a point that comes from The Harvard Guide to Shopping department stores are becoming more like museums and museums are becoming more like department stores. The curation of how goods are showcased, or the type of programming that a company coordinates – that’s OMA’s approach towards retail spaces. Despite the scale, It’s the same for a department store or a space like the Prada Epicenter in New York, where you have a stage at the core of the space for other activities. It’s been evolving and adapting to the disruption of e-commerce and I think that’s exactly how to enlarge the scope beyond shopping. It’s the strategy that the Office has used on several projects including Fondation Galerie Lafayette. 

“There is real sustainability and then there is sustainability as a marketing tool.”

AC: Could you tell us about discussions concerning sustainability, how is this urgent topic addressed with or by your clients within the fashion industry?  

Giulio: It’s a topic that everybody has to respond to because it’s also a part of the image that [brands] try to convey for themselves, it can be a moment to reposition. With architecture, you respond to this or represent this question physically, for example in the interior that you may want to develop. 

Giacomo: It’s interesting to see how there is a difference between the approaches of fashion and architecture, in the end, the real issue with architecture is that is has produced a sort of very recognisable aesthetic. But since it’s now felt as urgency and the overall debate can somehow block or influence the design process, not necessarily for OMA but for most practices. It might have also happened in fashion, if for example, all of a sudden you have to give up an unsustainable material, therefore conditioning the way you produce things. 

Giulio: In a way, it’s happening in both industries, there is real sustainability and then there is sustainability as a marketing tool. There are probably some brands that do it as a full process and others that broadcast a ‘sustainable’ approach that is probably just a marketing tool. It works on both sides; in architecture it becomes an aesthetic. For example, a few years ago there was a competition in Paris, which was defined as ‘broccoli architecture’ because every successful project was green or had ‘green’ somehow attached to it. Marketing wise it was very successful, but it doesn’t mean that it’s a successful project. Broadly,  the image that is being broadcasted is that if a building is ‘green’ it is sustainable.

Giacomo: It’s a problematic issue for architecture because it follows fashion and contrary to fashion architecture is meant to stay for at least 30 years. I’m more sceptical about the introduction of these fashion logics into architecture, which has a broader social responsibility. Maybe there are more intelligent ways of using sustainability, technology and so on, but if that becomes a ‘fashion’ then it’s problematic.

“Fashion, despite all the problems that it produces for the industry, capitalism, peoples’ image of themselves and their bodies, has some sort of freedom that other industries do not have.”

AC: To round up, I’d like to ask if there is anything specific you’ve learnt from collaborating on fashion projects?   

Giacomo: Something that fashion does, or at least what Prada, is give you freedom, a blank page to work with things. It seems to me, that the narratives they produce are very interesting clashes and collages of ideas or cultural references that sit in freedoms that other disciplines don’t have. You have an idea that informs the clothes, for us, it’s the other way around, [architecture] reaches people differently.  

Personally, what I’ve learnt from fashion is an approach that is not superficial, but more light, direct and free in respect to architecture that somehow tends to follow some sort of preconceived pathways to work. Fashion, despite all the problems that it produces for the industry, capitalism, peoples’ image of themselves and their bodies, has some sort of freedom that other industries do not have, which is very relevant. 

Giulio: It also has something to do with speed because you have a strict calendar, you have a pre-set date of when something has to happen even if compromises or simplifications have to apply. So, at a certain point, things just have to get done and there is no point of overthinking, it just needs to happen.