The Prada Transformer in Seoul

Among Seoul’s five grand palaces, Gyeonghuigung palace (경희궁) is sometimes called the “forgotten palace.”

First built in the early 17th century, it was completely razed by the Japanese during their colonial occupation of Korea. In the 1990s, the original foundation stones and building records were used to reconstruct the palace, and today it’s a serene place in the city. 

But for the next six months, there’s something unusual on the palace grounds. Amidst the old and new is a curious, ultra-modern structure called the Prada Transformer, a collaboration of the Italian designer and the acclaimed Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas.

Described by Koolhaas as a “dynamic and living organism,” the Prada Transformer is a steel tetrahedron made from a hexagon, a cross, a rectangle and a circle.

The structure is wrapped in an elastic, white skin and – with the aid of cranes – can be rotated so that wall becomes floor and ceiling becomes wall.

On April 23rd, the Prada Transformer was officially opened with project officials and Korean pop stars, all clad in Prada of course. And two days later, it was opened to the public with the traveling exhibit, “Waist Down – Skirts by Miuccia Prada.”

The show, now in its fifth iteration, features Prada designs from 1988 through the 2009 spring/summer collection.

The exhibit feels like a fashion show, boutique, and museum combined. Skirts swish back and forth automatically, and large cutouts of models hang diagonally from the walls. 

Also on display are the fruits of a three-week exercise with several Korean design schools. Prada asked top students to create skirts that reflect the past, present and future of Korean aesthetics and culture.

Over the next six months, the 20-meter high, 180-ton structure will transform its footprint to accommodate various events. From June 27-July 9, Oscar-nominated director Alejandro González Iñárritu will co-curate a short-film series entitled, “Flesh, Mind and Spirit.”

A Prada release notes the diverse selections will feature physical, intellectual and spiritual films. And starting August 16, Swedish artist Nathalie Djurberg’s installation, “Turn into Me” will be on display.

Djurberg’s stop-action-animation dramas use claymation to create what the artist calls, “fairy tales gone mad.” And finally, through October, the Transformer will host as yet un-disclosed “special events.”

In December 2008, the worldwide financial crisis forced fellow fashion-house Chanel to end its celebrity architect collaboration.

Prada won’t disclose the Transformer’s cost, but says 20% of the financing was provided by LG, Hyundai Motor and Red Resources, Inc.

Well, if you’re wondering why Seoul was selected as the Prada Transformer’s first and, as yet, only stop, Prada officials cite the city’s “vibrant attitude,” Koreans’ understanding of architecture and art, as well as the nation’s growing fashion and design industries. 

And although city officials had suggested locating the Transformer at Olympic Park or alongside the Hangang river, Koolhaas lobbied hard for the palace.

To see it for yourself, access is free but requires a reservation made on site or online. While you wait, peruse the nice design books on display or surf the project’s web site via laptop. 

Finally, if the Prada Transformer’s presence alongside a former royal palace concerns you, Prada pledges to completely restore the grounds following the project’s conclusion.

About Matt Kelley

Matt Kelly is native of the US Pacific Northwest and is half-Korean by ethnicity. He lived in Korea for five years and has written hundreds of travel guides for Wallpaper, TimeOut, the Boston Globe and Seoul Magazine and was a host for several different variety shows on Korean radio and television.

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