When does 23,000 square feet cost $40 million to build? When it's the Prada New York Epicenter. Designed by architecture's visionary (and super-trendy) Rem Koolhaas, this gut renovation transformed the former Soho branch of the Guggenheim Museum into another kind of artistic landscape.

Upon entering the store, The Wave, a half pipe-type structure, pierces the middle of the ground floor and violently dips into the basement. Its ramp does double duty as a shoe display and, at night, as a stage. Clothing is displayed in movable cages above. A tremendous textile sculpture hangs from the ceiling. Sheetrock is intentionally left bare; gadgetry is prized.

The project has been praised, and lambasted, too, by the architectural community. “Think of this as a museum show on indefinite display,” glowingly wrote The New York Times architecture critic Herbert Muschamp. The New Republic's Martin Filler, on the other hand, recently deemed it a monument to “theoretical extremes.”

But of course, it's not a museum or a monument: It's a store. SCW asked the judges of our annual SADI (Superior Achievement in Design and Imaging) Awards to assess whether or not Prada is a harbinger of retail design to come. And while they noted that some of its standout features — particularly its innovative use of unusual materials — are already being copied, its practical lessons for retailers are less clear.

“Prada tried to be so avant-garde, they lost the reason of being a store, which is to sell goods,” says Alex Gorlin, principal of Alexander Gorlin Architect in New York. “The disconnect between the image of it, and the selling, was too extreme. Most of a customer's opportunities to purchase goods were confined to the basement — you have to search for something to buy.”

And that basement isn't so comfortable. Aisles are claustrophobically narrow, and the fluorescent light against green walls isn't flattering. The zebrawood floors aren't wearing well, and the high-tech gizmos (such as RFIP tags, containing real-time inventory information, affixed to the merchandise) aren't completely operational. When approaching a new store design, Cowan and Associates Design Director and SADI judge Thom Morbitzer says that maintenance of finishes, storage, and ease of traffic flow are among his first considerations. From the shopper's point of view, the Prada New York Epicenter doesn't hold such concerns in very high regard.

A visit to Tomorrowland

Prada's Soho store is clearly about sizzle, not the bottom line. Its December 2001 opening was a celebrity gala with guests such as Kevin Spacey, Natalie Portman and Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. “You could not buy the publicity, the marketing value, that Prada generated,” says Russ Sway, president of the Institute of Store Planners and of R. Sway Associates.

More than a year later, the value of that buzz is hard to measure. Prada officials wouldn't divulge revenue figures for the store. However, on repeated visits to the store over the course of the year, there seemed to be more sightseers than shoppers. Meanwhile, the Prada empire continues to struggle with slowing sales and $785.9 million in debt. In 2002, it scuttled its third attempt at a $1.75 billion initial public offering and saw revenue drop 3.1 percent to $1.68 billion — although the company's fourth quarter sales were up 10.9 percent from the same period in 2001.

Whatever the payoff of the New York store, Prada is proceeding with another Epicenter in Tokyo, designed by Herzog & de Meuron and currently under construction. It will be unlike the New York store or the planned San Francisco Epicenter, another Koolhaas-designed space that has been indefinitely postponed for cost reasons. The strategy is an extreme example of customizing each store in a brand's portfolio in order to overcome the shopper blahs.

But for store-design professionals, Koolhaas's project raises more questions than it answers. In particular, they wonder what it says exactly about brand identity. Frankie Campione, principal of CREATE Architecture Planning & Design, points out that at Burberry, which also recently opened a costly Manhattan flagship, retail design follows its brand image. “Anywhere you go in the world, you know where you are,” he says. On the other hand, at Prada, the architecture comes first. Brand identity comes second, if at all.

Thanks to its lack of cohesive message, “I don't really get the narrative, except the narrative of fashion, but that's going to be dated the next season,” says Gorlin. If fashion were the narrative and architecture the subtext, this would not be a problem, he notes; the changing fashions would keep the store fresh.

On the other hand, Kevin McCarthy, an independent consultant and director of retail development for Paul Davril Inc., says that the Prada Epicenter has opportunities to change as frequently as its fashions. Its billboard-like wallpaper could be replaced, for example — but it hasn't. “The whole premise of the store was that it was all about sudden transformation: By day it's a retailer, by night it's a performance space,” he says. “At least you'd think the store would change out on a seasonal basis in recognition of people's need for something new and something fresh. Only the product changes.”

The trickle-down effect

Not that the high-profile Prada New York Epicenter has not influenced retail design. Mainstream retailers like the shoe chain Aldo are adopting some of Prada's materials, such as translucent panels made of polycarbonate, while others are keen on the way video screens are integrated into the space.

Spatially speaking, Gorlin adds: “Creating a sequence of spaces as a kind of architectural promenade is a good device that should be used more often for shops. And often a shopping mall is a stultifying sequence of endless shops in a row, which hardly energizes you to shop,” so the device could be applied writ large as well.

The unpredictability of the architectural promenade keeps the customer involved in exploring the space. If designers were to synthesize these tricks with a more coherent brand identity, Campione suggests, customers can better relate to a retail or mall brand, and will have more emotional investment in purchasing the merchandise it offers. He notes, for instance, that the new Target prototype is more architecturally compelling than the original. However, it isn't architecture for architecture's sake. Target's new architectural image simply echoes its reputation as a home of well designed merchandise for savvy consumers.

Morbitzer also notes that varying stores architecturally is a good strategy, “as long some key elements are continued from store to store, such as signage, lifestyle photography, and graphic lettering.” He points to restaurant chain Cosí as an exemplar of differentiating its spaces, but maintaining a theme throughout all of its locations. Luxury brands have been faster to adopt this strategy. In addition to architectural variations among stores, some are even varying their merchandise selection so that high-class travelers are tempted to shop the same brand the world over and search for those differences.

Ultimately, though, the Prada New York Epicenter may just be a blip on the retail architecture radar. “Does it appeal by entertaining?” Campione asks. “Yes. Does it appeal to my 65 year-old mother who can afford Prada? No.” And for a company that has failed at three attempts to take its stock public, $40 million is a steep price to pay to entertain.

When is a store not a store? Let us know your thoughts on the Prada debate. Send e-mails to bkarlin@primediabusiness.com.