Lyndon Neri shares his thoughts about the Chinese diaspora, his work and life partner Rossana Hu , and his aspirations for the next generation of Chinese architects.
Does being a hua chiao (overseas-born Chinese) inform your work?
People like to label us. The Western press say we represent “the new Chinese thinking” or “the new Chinese abstraction”, and the Chinese press describe our approach as an “interesting way of thinking because they’re educated abroad”. As a hua chiao, there’s something unique about us: We are more Chinese than the Chinese in China.
When my parents and grandparents left China (for the Philippines where Neri he was born), they held on to the culture they love so much and I was raised with many stories from their homeland. Inevitably, Rossana (his Taiwan-born partner) and I are very Chinese and we think like Chinese. It’s in our DNA. But we were educated abroad, so we’re also Westernised. So the Chinese architects might not consider us Chinese, while the foreign architects might not consider us foreigners.
In many ways, we don’t really have a place. But that’s a blessed position because there’s no pressure. Instead of trying to identify ourselves with a nationality, we focus on the issues and problems relating to architecture and interiors. All the labelling has gone off our projects, and instead we just try to do an amazing project.
What are the dynamics like between you and Rossana?
We are a tag team! I’m a very schematic person. I tend to draw many different ideas. And Rossana is an amazing and strong critic. We discuss the concept, she fine-tunes the design, and we finalise the details together. I come across as a bit more extroverted and friendly, but I’m not. I have a temper and I am a very hard person to please (chuckles). Rossana comes across as very serious and more intellectual. She is all that, but she has no temper. She’s very logical and I’m very emotional. We complement each other. She is in many ways my best friend.
My dad used to say, “You should marry someone, and after 20 years, look at her in the morning and you’re happy that she’s the mother of your kids and your lover.” We have been married for 22 years now. I do feel that way, so I am blessed. And it’s hard to separate personal and private life. With our travelling schedules, projects and three kids (ages 11, 14 and 16), we hardly see each other. I’m glad we actually work together. The moment we talk design is the time we actually can be together.
What is it about Neri&Hu that is garnering so much attention?
I don’t know why. But I can only guess it has to be the inter-disciplinary aspect that we practice. We’re not just architects, we’re also interior designers, and we actually care about the products and furniture we design. We’re no better than a lot of architects practising in this world today. The only difference is, China is growing economically, so we have the opportunity to practise and to experiment. We’re definitely in a blessed position. It’s nothing to be arrogant about because it’s merely a platform that’s been given to us.