Minimalism and maximalism in the architecture of fashion museums

The Musée Yves Saint Laurent, Marrakech. Photo courtesy of Fondation Jardin Majorelle, Nicolas Mathéus.

What do Koolhaas, Gehry and Studio KO have in common? (apart from black tee-shirts)

From the subtle minimalism of patterned brickwork to the not-so-effortless maximalism of huge fibreglass sails, architects are giving dimensional form to some of the world’s greatest fashion brands.
Yves Saint Laurent Museum, Marrakech by Studio KO
Textiles are the most temperamental of art forms; they are very reactive to excessive light, warmth or moisture. In order to house 5,000 pieces of Yves Saint Laurent (YSL) couture in the warm climate of Marrakesh, Morocco, Studio KO pulled back the entire museum within a window-less shell, wrapped in locally-sourced bricks. The curvilinear façade has two layers; a layer of large pale-pink granite blocks topped by terracotta bricks in a lace pattern. The bricks alternate from lying flat to extruding from the wall, creating endless possibilities of patterning.

Curvilinear brick detail of the Musée Yves Saint Laurent, Marrakech. Photo courtesy of Fondation Jardin Majorelle, Nicolas Mathéus.

“We designed the building like one would cut fabric for a dress by composing curves and lines,” said Studio KO when the building opened in September 2017. “Its façades would be wrapped in a brick trim, like a drape, a throw, a cape”. Laurent was endlessly inspired by Marrakesh after he first visited the city in 1960 and later bought the villa next to where the museum is now located. This museum is a fitting tribute to the French fashion designer who made Marrakesh his second home.

The museum’s courtyard features brick in a diagonal rib pattern. Photo courtesy of Fondation Jardin Majorelle, Nicolas Mathéus.

Foundation Louis Vuitton, Paris by Frank Gehry.
On the other end of the spectrum is the museum for the Fondation Louis Vuitton designed by Frank Gehry and commissioned by Bernard Arnault, Head of Moet Hennessy - Louis Vuitton. Unlike the YSL museum, the Fondation Louis Vuitton is not solely dedicated to the work of Louis Vuitton but functions as an art gallery, museum and cultural centre.

Translucent fibre-reinforced concrete reveals the structural supports of Frank Gehry’s design. Photo by Fred Romero.

Built on the edge of Bois de Boulogne, a swarthe of public land that was set aside to never be developed, the museum was fraught with controversy from the start. After a court battle, the museum was allowed to go ahead on public land, under the condition that it was only one storey high. In typical Gehry ingenuity, the building has only one story, even though its facade of sailing 12 ovalesque shapes - “icebergs” - soar 60 metres into the air. The translucent fibre-reinforced concrete reveals the complex arrangement of steel joints and timber beams that hold them up. For some, this ruins the effortless illusion of Gehry’s sails but for others it’s a rare look behind the architect’s technical program, which is usually hidden behind sheets of curving steel such as those at the Walt Disney Concert Hall.
Prada Fondazione, Milan by OMA
A fashion brand known for their practical distinctiveness, Prada’s contemporary art gallery echoes the label’s design philosophy. For Prada Fondazione in Milan, Rem Koolhaas, director of OMA, and his firm renovated a historic gin distillery, adding strong but simple embellishments to the buildings; a mirror clad “invisible” cinema, a gold-leaf covered building and a 60-metre-high white, concrete tower.

Mirror-cladding makes one of Prada Fondazione’s buildings almost invisible. Photo by Paolo Gamba.

As lead architect on the project, Rem Koolhaas considers the project neither a preservation project nor an entirely new building. “Two conditions that are usually kept separate here confront each other in a state of permanent interaction – offering an ensemble of fragments that will not congeal into a single image, or allow any part to dominate the others. New, old, horizontal, vertical, wide, narrow, white, black, open, enclosed – all these contrasts establish the range of oppositions that define the new Fondazione.”

Gold lead cladding is striking and lavish touch by OMA. Photo by Paolo Gamba.

The Yves Saint Laurent Museum, Fondation Louis Vuitton and Prada Fondazione are a testament to the dialogue between the disciplines of architecture and fashion design. Each is an expression of that fashion brand’s identity, from YSL’s timeless elegance, and Louis Vuitton’s glamorous exuberance to Prada’s urbane minimalism.

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