Herzog & de Meuron's Miu Miu is Tokyo's hidden secret

Herzog & de Meuron seduces with subtlety in Tokyo, expressing Miu Miu’s deep desire for change and self-expression.

Retail architecture today is about different kinds of spaces, not just your standard store. High-fashion house Prada, headed by Miuccia Prada, was already developing a different kind of strategy in 2001, collaborating with the architects at OMA/AMO in Rotterdam and with Herzog & de Meuron in Basel. The aim was to redefine shopping as cultural entertainment.

Prada’s latest joint venture with Herzog & de Meuron for the fashion brand’s experimental counterpart, Miu Miu, is based on the concept of the home.

In late March, Miu Miu opened a secret box in Tokyo. Walk across the street in a diagonal line and you find yourself facing Herzog & de Meuron’s gleaming Prada Epicenter, built in 2003 and ‘quilted’ in diamond-shaped panes of glass. Miu Miu, on the other hand – a rather ordinary box whose lid is tilted to reveal the contents – draws far less attention. Its ample awning of unpolished stainless steel almost disappears into its grey surroundings. Breaking the monotony is a narrow polished strip at one side of the store, which captures reflections of colourful Tokyo taxis and blue rubbish bags outside the building next door.

The Miu Miu project has been a well-kept secret, and the building continues Miu Miu’s flirtatious game of hide-and-seek with passing pedestrians, many of whom stop to take pictures of the copious canopy with its muted grey finish and luxurious copper lining. In comparison with the heady clarity of the Prada Epicenter, Miu Miu is a coy coquette. Although the two buildings share an urban environment, a twisted spirit of modernity and a similar set of rules, seductive Miu Miu breaks them all at the new Tokyo store, expressing a deep desire for change.

In a lecture he gave at New York’s Columbia University in 2013, ‘Myths and Collaborations over Time’, Jacques Herzog named four typologies that describe the projects he designs with Pierre de Meuron: archaeological, minimal, ornamental and integral. He calls the Prada Epicenter an ‘integral’ building: its structure, space, form and ornament are fully integrated. Miu Miu falls into the ‘ornamental’ category, which goes beyond decoration to include all the architecture involved: interior and exterior. While developing their concept of the ornamental typology, Herzog and partner used ‘the following thoughts to channel our ideas: more like a home than a department store, more hidden than open, more understated than extravagant, more opaque than transparent’.

To comply with building regulations in this part of the city, Miu Miu was not subjected to the complex calculations that frustrated the architects’ attempts to construct the Prada Epicenter a decade ago. The height of the new store is well within the maximum allowed. According to the architects, Miyuki Street was ‘never meant to be a space of its own’ and ‘is a purely technical and functional link between Omotesando and the Aoyama Reien Cemetery farther down the road’. Nevertheless, it’s here that they erected their steel box, with flaps that open front and back, an object of quiet but beckoning geometry.

Accompanying the Prada Epicenter is a small plaza at one side of the building, a space that implies a sense of separation. A shallow pavement is all that prevents the Miu Miu box from crossing the building line, yet its proximity to the street, along with the slightly lifted lid, is more engaging than the transparent perfection of its forerunner. The sharp angles of the box belie the lack of linearity within, where the retail environment is a landscape of rounded shapes. Wrapped up in the taciturn box is a bright inviting space. The double-shelled project has an outer skin of steel and an inner skin dominated by elegant fabrics: two parts held together by perforated copper.

The distinction between inside and out continues in the fresh look of an interior that features walls clad in shades-of-green brocade, handsome timber flooring, modern Plexiglas shelving, minimalist LED lighting and the striking colours of Miu Miu fashions. The contrast between exterior and interior reinforces the difference between Miu Miu and the Prada Epicentre, a building in which all parts form a coherent whole.

Plans, sections and detailing: straightforward for Miu Miu, as opposed to the complex and somewhat intellectual journey that led to the Prada Epicenter. Navigation at Miu Miu is a piece of cake. You walk into a spacious symmetrical room flanked by three (hidden) rooms on both sides. Everything is well organized, with fluid spatial divisions and areas that can be partitioned with curtains to modify the overall space, a reference to the screens and movable paper walls in traditional Japanese architecture. The focal point of the interior design is a stairway that leads to the first floor, where private rooms and fitting rooms invite shoppers to peek through the curtains and enjoy a view of the street below.

Herzog & de Meuron’s interest in proportionality – an aspect the team believes is too often neglected in contemporary architecture – can be seen in the lofty ceiling upstairs. The flap on the back of the box connects interior to exterior, while giving the building extra height and more pleasing proportions. Natural light filtering through triangular windows on both sides of the building falls on coppery surfaces; one example is a wall that reflects upholstered shelves for shoes and accessories. Doorframes disguised by wall coverings seem to be no more than ornamental. In a restroom that also plays the game of hide-and-seek, a copper basin rests on a fabric-covered cushion, and water flowing from the tap is visually duplicated in the mirror.

The difference in the architecture of the buildings reflects the difference in the brands they represent. Miuccia Prada, who heads both labels, took over Prada from her mother in 1978. She launched Miu Miu – her childhood nickname – in 1993. In a 2014 interview with System magazine, she described the divergent creative processes behind the brands: ‘Miu Miu is not as complicated and thought out as Prada. Rather than being young, Miu Miu is immediate. Prada is very sophisticated and considered; Miu Miu is much more naive. The solution, when I am working on Miu Miu, has to come immediately, instinctively, spontaneously, with whatever is available at the moment. If I think three times, I stop.’ The same immediacy is present in the Tokyo boutique: you don’t need to think three times to get the idea. It’s there as you enter. But the simplicity implied is layered and covert. Whereas the Prada Epicenter presents an open, crystal-clear integration of structure, space, form and ornament, Miu Miu is about openings and discovery, about a game of seduction played by a stainless-steel box and its coppery interior.

This article debuted in Frame #105 alongside many other inspirational interviews and projects. Find your copy here. 

Photos Nacása & Partners Inc.


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