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What if they built a store and everybody came, but nobody shopped? That may be the fate of the new Prada “epicenter,” the 23,000-sq.-ft. retail space in New York designed by architect-of-the-moment Rem Koolhaas that boasts so much arresting visual flourishes and high-tech gadgetry that shoppers may actually forget there's merchandise to be bought. From the “wave” that joins the upper and lower levels (a skateboarder's dream) to the plugged-in dressing rooms that not only help you pick the shirt you want but also show your backside on video, this is a space that doesn't just redefine the concept of retail, it redefines the concept of space.

The project, which opened in December and reportedly sports a $41-million pricetag, was conceived by Prada in collaboration with Koolhaas and the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) as a laboratory where the company can experiment with what it calls “new forms of customer interaction.” It is designed to function not only as a retail space, but also as a public space that can provide cultural programming. Above all, it is designed to be flexible, enabling change in the configuration of the store itself, its surfaces, its function, and the content on the displays.

Among those collaborating with Koolhaas and OMA (and AMO, the conceptual arm of OMA) on the design aspects of the project were IDEO London, IconNicholson, Shen Milsom & Wilke, and 2×4. Though Koolhaas and his design crew may have created one of the more provocative and visually arresting new spaces out there, most of it would be useless if it didn't work technically; it was up to the team at New York-based Scharff Weisberg to handle much of the systems integration and IT implementation for the areas featuring audio and video components.

The descending steps in Prada's New York Epicenter can used for product display or as seating for special events.

“We've worked on a number of projects where certain requirements could be considered avant garde or cutting edge,” says company president Josh Weisberg of this project. “But we've never worked on a project where nearly everything we were providing and developing was cutting edge, from the video displays that were used to the implementation of the equipment.”

Next Wave

The store itself occupies the ground floor and basement of one building as well as the basement of the building next door. Upstairs and downstairs are joined by the central design gesture, the aforementioned wave, a curved surface made of zebrawood that swoops down into the lower level, where it is joined by a descending series of steps. The wave conceals a foldout stage, which can be used for a variety of cultural activities, from film programs to lectures; the steps on the other side, usually used as a shoe display area, can also be used as auditorium seating for up to 200 people.

The event stage features a complete AV system, including a Christie Digital Vista X-5 DLP Projector, a Vutec 200” retractable projection screen, an Extron composite video router and ISS-108 scaler, Tascam CD and cassette players, a Pioneer DVD player, BSS signal processing units, Shure Beta 58 mics and U124/58 wireless microphone dual-channel receivers, and Countryman Iso-Max C podium mics. The screen proved to be the big challenge for Scharff Weisberg in this section of the store.

“We needed to develop a screen system that would get the screen high enough up in the air off the stage,” Weisberg explains. “So the screen is built into the stage, and there are two electro-mechanical lifts under the screen. What happens is the two lifts lift the screen package up and then the screen itself is deployed.” The company worked with Shen Milsom & Wilke on the development of the deployment system.

The ground floor is dominated by a huge round glass elevator, which houses a selection of the handbags for sale in the store (that's right — you can shop in the elevator), as well as a series of moveable aluminum mesh cages, which house most of the remainder of the ground-floor merchandise. These units, which are mounted on motorized tracks (reportedly the same type used on automotive assembly lines) and can be positioned in a variety of places in the space, contain shelving, hanging bars, space for mannequins, and something called ubiquitous displays, which are video monitors that can serve either as service terminals for the staff or to exhibit video content. The racks can also all be moved to the back of the store to free the space for other activities.

Also on one of these tracks is a huge piece of fabric dubbed the sock — in reality a gray chiffon-like material reportedly designed and created by Koolhaas' wife — that conceals an impressive speaker cluster to be used either for live events or as background music. According to Weisberg, the fabric is acoustically transparent, so it has no effect on the audio — not that it would matter. “For retail — actually for any kind of application — it's very much a kick-ass sound system,” he says. The system consists of EAW SB-330 subs, Turbosound TCS-56s, TCS-35s, and TCS-40s, plus QSC CX Series amps. The rest of the in-house audio features Atlas Soundolier FA series ceiling speakers, JBL Control 28T wall speakers, and more QSC CX series amps. Other equipment in the control room includes an Alcorn-McBride MP-3 audio machine, an Adtech Edje MPEG II video player, Extron distribution amps and scan converters, and Pinnacle Systems Stream Factory streaming video encoders.

Den of Ubiquity

The lower level features the most high-tech dressing rooms you're likely to see anywhere: a closet that sees any article of clothing placed in it and projects it onto a touchscreen, allowing shoppers to find out if it comes in other sizes and colors and if it is in stock at the epicenter or in any other Prada store around the world; a video-based “magic mirror” that reveals the customer's back and displays a delayed playback when the customer turns; and dressing-room doors that turn translucent to transparent with the press of a switch. The lower level also houses three media booths containing an array of audio-visual information and VIP rooms for those extra-special Prada clients, and, oh yes, other merchandise.

Prada's dressing rooms feature a time-delay video monitor that allows you to check out the rear view.

One of the more, um, ubiquitous examples of Scharff Weisberg's involvement in Prada are the aforementioned ubiquitous displays, which can be found hanging from clothing racks, sitting on reception desks, and connected to the moving racks. The displays themselves are customized LCD panels, which much of the time play what has been termed “aura content” — films developed by the architect that are meant to represent the Prada brand — but the screens can also be used as portals to the Prada databases, enabling salespeople to call up product info at the drop of a very expensive hat.

The trick here for Scharff Weisberg was that the designers for this part of the space — IconNicholson and IDEO London — specified three very different types of 16 × 9 monitors: Panasonic 42" plasma screens, Samsung 24" LCD screens, and Silicon Graphics 17" LCD screens. Each screen provides a different resolution, but the content had to be consistent for each; in addition, all the screens are used in portrait mode, so the video had to be rotated.

“We found that the computers they had to feed each of these screens ran out of gas because they had to do so much work rotating and providing separate resolutions and interacting,” explains Weisberg. “So what we did was take the video part of that equation, the scaling and rotating, and developed a piece of custom electronics, which was all designed in-house, from scratch, in about four months. It was really a superhuman effort to get it pulled off.” Weisberg credits head electronics designer Alex Stengle with spearheading the customization.

Do I Look Fat in This?

Take those ubiquitous displays, slap a touchscreen on them, put them behind glass in the closets downstairs, and you essentially have the systems installed in the dressing rooms, the major difference being the computer system here also has the ability to read what are called RFID tags attached to the clothes. Under this system, which was developed by IDEO and implemented by Scharff Weisberg, shoppers can take a garment they've selected and place it in the closet; the closet senses what it is and brings up information specific to that garment: what colors it comes in, sizes, etc. Also found in the dressing room are the so-called “magic mirror systems,” which allow you to see your backside while you're looking at the front of yourself in the mirror, a concept that The New Yorker recently said “might come under the heading of too much information.” Weisberg for one defends it as a practical solution.

“It actually works well, because if you watch the way people, women in particular, interact with a dressing-room mirror, they'll put on a dress or a skirt and they want to see how the fabric and the garment moves with them,” he explains. “You're always twisting your head to see what you look like in the mirror as you twirl. And this system really works for that; you can twirl around and come back and face the monitor and see how it looks.”

Scharff Weisberg's involvement in the project began back in December of 2000, when Weisberg flew to Rotterdam to talk with the Koolhaas crew about IT and AV technology strategies for the store. “At that point,” he explains, “a lot of the concepts were realized, but a way of doing them was not.” The company spent the next several months researching specific solutions related to the testing and designing of electronics needed to perform the various functions, and in May of last year was signed on as integrators for the entire effort, which the exception of the data network, which was headed up by IconNicholson.

Housed in Soho, not far from the World Trade Center, Scharff Weisberg's crew was installing cable in the Prada store on September 11, and worked throughout the Thanksgiving weekend and then virtually nonstop to its opening 10 days before Christmas. “Toward the end we were there all the time,” says Weisberg. “I couldn't even make it to the EDDY Awards [on December 7] — that's how critical this project was.”

Next up: three more planned epicenters, the next one in Beverly Hills, a venue that should have no trouble attracting both sightseers and shoppers.