Neri&Hu Design: Defining modern Chinese architecture and spaces

Global perspective: By offering architects in China a design platform, Lyndon Neri (left, with life and work partner Rossana Hu) is hoping that 'we can give the best of what China can offer, from a design point of view, back to the world'. - ANDREW ROWAT

Eschewing China’s copycat culture and her bolder-and-flashier building mantra, a Shanghai design atelier is asserting a modern design language with its award-winning oeuvre.

Ostensibly, the architecture scene in today’s China is a paradox. Foreign architect-designed iconic structures and new cities, some exact copies of European towns, are popping up alongside developer-driven ugly behemoths, all at a frantic pace. But amid the chaos, a clique of talented and adroit Chinese designers, armed with impressive portfolios, are paving the way to morph China into a creative architectural force. Awarding the 2012 Pritzker Prize (the Nobel Prize equivalent for architecture) to Chinese architect Wang Shu was also a much-needed boost.

Leading the pack is Shanghai-based design practice Neri&Hu Design and Research Office. With projects spanning three continents, from Shanghai and London to Singapore and Mexico City, the practice has been churning out a steady stream of acclaimed furniture, interior design and architecture projects. Philippines-born Lyndon Neri and Taiwan-born Rossana Hu are the founders of Neri&Hu.

Growing up in their respective home countries, Neri and Hu attended secondary school in the US. Both did their undergraduate studies at University Of California, Berkeley, where they met. Neri completed his master’s degree at Harvard University while Hu received hers at Princeton University. They are work and life partners.

In 2000, the couple arrived in Shanghai to work on the Three On The Bund project for American architect Michael Graves. Neri was then the Director for Projects in Asia and an associate of the US-based Michael Graves & Associates practice. The move to Shanghai was never planned.

“When we completed the project in 2002, SARS hit and we couldn’t go back,” recalls Neri. He was one of the speakers at the Kuala Lumpur Design Forum 2014, in conjunction with architecture conferenceDatum:KL 2014. “Three months turned into six, then eight. During that time, I got to meet different manufacturers, saw how things were done, and realised how everything was made in China,” he says. “I knew if I wanted to experiment, this was the place to be. We thought, let’s give it a shot – and it’s been 10 years!”

Design Republic's Design Collective (2012): In the main exhibition space, the staircase wrap the triple-height atrium and leads visitors throughout the multiple levels of display where the furniture can be viewed from different vantage points and through intermittent openings into the different floors. Products are also displayed within the recesses of the walls. Seven large openings pr skylight in the roof allow daylight into the exhibition space and accentuate visitors' journey as they climb higher through the gallery levels.

Neri&Hu was set up in 2004, followed by retail concept store, Design Republic. On top of showcasing selected international and China-designed furniture, lighting and accessories, Design Republic serves as a platform to promote good design via fringe activities like exhibitions, lecture series and its publication, Manisfesto.

In the last decade, Neri&Hu has racked up numerous accolades. The firm was named one of the Design Vanguards in 2009 by Architectural Record (a prestigious American monthly trade magazine) and clinched the 2010 Architectural Review’s Awards for Emerging Architecture (AR is a monthly global architectural magazine published in London). In 2013, both Neri and Hu were inducted into the US Interior Design Hall Of Fame. And they were recently named Designer Of The Year 2014 by Britain-based global lifestyle magazine Wallpaper*.

The inter-disciplinary outfit with 100 staff, half are foreigners, also does furniture and lighting design for global brands like Moooi, BD Barcelona Design, Classicon, Stellar Works, LEMA, Meritalia and Gandia Blasco. Their in-house brand lighting and accessories are made in China while Neri&Hu-designed furniture is now made in Portugal in collaboration with furniture brand De La Espada.

Shedding any sort of stylistic signature, Neri&Hu’s work is defined by elements like the melding of old and new within a contemporary setting, the blurring of private and public realms, and the exploration of local context. “We start with having a concept in design that germinates from an idea,” Neri explains. “At the end, the essence is to really understand what you’re trying to do and the meaning behind it.”

Citing the theme “Rejuvenation” in this year’s conference, for example, Neri asserts that rejuvenation of old buildings isn’t just about preserving the physical identity and restoring them perfectly. “We need to understand the heritage, spirit and cultural essence of what we’re trying to do, and can we make the spirit come alive again,” he says. “As much as it is seemingly a cliché, I think you need to understand history to move forward.”

Recurring elements in their work include the five “obsessions” that Neri&Hu identify, which includes “voyeuristic gaze”, “exhibiting cultural textures” and “re-branding history”. Their award-wining project, a Shanghai boutique hotel called the Waterhouse At South Bund, embodies some of these “obsessions”.

The Waterhouse (2010): Located in Shanghai’s South Bund district, this boutique hotel is a re-purposed 1930s Japanese Army headquarters. The hotel fronts the Huangpu River and looks across the famous Pudong skyline. The building’s stripped concrete and brick walls were left intact to reference the area’s industrial past. – Derryck Meneure/The Waterhouse At South Bund
The view of Huangpu River from The Waterhouse At Sound Bund rooftop deck. This new addition to the old structure was built with brown, rust-like Corten steel to reflect the industrial past of the river's dockyards. 

Waterhouse is part of a collection of design-driven boutique hotels and restaurants like Singapore’s New Majestic Hotel and Pollen restaurant, founded by Singaporean hotelier Loh Lik Peng. A 1930s former headquarters for the Japanese army during WW2, the building received a new lease on life by its conversion into a 19-room hotel.

The original concrete building was restored while an extension on the roof using Corten steel was added to reflect the industrial past of this working dock by the river. Fading paint, mould stains and peeled patches covering the building’s ageing façades and interior surfaces were left intact. New additions include large windows, a concrete reception desk, and steel columns and beams, used for shoring up the old structure with added reinforcement. New and old are juxtaposed to allow guests the sensation of passing through layers of history.

Playing with the notion of blurring the public and private, the public spaces allow one to peek into private rooms while the private spaces invite one to look out at the public arena. For example, a tall, narrow pane of glass above the reception desk in the three-storey-high lobby provides a glimpse into a guest room, and corridor windows in the guest rooms overlook the in-house restaurant below. Of course, this can either be disconcerting or appeal to the voyeuristic tendency in some of us.

The architects are inspired by Shanghai’s nong tang (narrow alleyways) built in early 20th century, a shared space between buildings where a strong sense of community thrived. Residents cooked, did laundry, bathed their kids and mingled, while kids frolic in these bustling lanes. Neri&Hu applied the lane house concept, albeit vertically, to Waterhouse by using vertical openings and windows offering views from guest rooms into the public courtyard where guests usually mingle over cocktails.

Waterhouse has snagged rave reviews and countless awards, leading to more international commissions for Neri&Hu.

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