Don't be 'starchitects': Neri&Hu on their generation of Chinese designers

Global perspective: By offering architects in China a design platform, Lyndon Neri is hoping that 'we can give the best of what China can offer, from a design point of view, back to the world'. - ART CHEN/The Star

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.

Camper showroom/office Shanghai (2013): The Spanish shoe brand's new flagship showroom and office in Shanghai is built within an industrial warehouse in the French Concession district. Inspired by the city's nong tang (traditional narrow alleyways), Neri&Hu inserted a two-storey house clad in reclaimed grey brick and wood (from demolished lane house) into an existing warehouse and create the sense of the opening of the company to the lanes of the city.
Camper showroom/office Shanghai (2013): An internal "exterior lane" extends into the showroom area, reinforcing the sectional cut of the house and Camper shoes are hung on display using steel hooks.   

It’s Neri&Hu’s 10th anniversary this year. Any reflections?

Ten years went by really fast and we’ve been really fortunate. When I first came to Shanghai, I had been doing architecture for 15 years and had zero interior design experience. It was only when we worked with Michael Graves on an interior project (Three On The Bund) that people started thinking we were ID specialists. 

Working with Graves forced us to understand China at a small scale: how the contractors build, how manufacturing works, and understanding the psyche of modern China. We started with designing forks and spoons, chairs and tables, then the interior for a small yoga studio, and restaurants. By the time we got the commission for The Waterhouse At South Bund, we already had five years of experience in interior and product design. In the last three years though, we shifted big time to architecture.  

A lot of big architectural companies, even famous architects (think Zaha Hadid, Moshe Safdie, Rem Koolhas, etc), go to China and are shocked by the way things are done. We have to be smart enough to know and choose what the nation can build for us. Is glass and metal the best solution, or should we go for concrete? Take advantage of what the city allows you to do and express it in the way you would like to express it.

What’s next for Neri&Hu?

We’d like to do more cultural and public projects like museums and schools. Hotels are good, too. I’m constantly provoking my hotel clients by making the rooms more transparent for people to see in and out, and making restaurants and lobbies accessible to the public. When you are travelling, you want to engaged with where you are and not feel cocooned in the hotel.

My aspiration is to create umbrella brands that allow emerging Asian designers to deal with Asian issues and leave a legacy for the future generation of designers to hold on to.

What is the current state of architecture and design in China?

In China, many talented architects are emerging, and there will be many more. I’m very glad that it’s happening. When we started 10 years ago, many Chinese architects, like Yung Ho Chang and Qingyun Ma, were doing significant work in China, yet very few had done work abroad. We, the current generation of architects practising in China, should not expect to be "starchitects". We’re bridges for the next generation, who will have a strong representation of what China, and in many ways what architects, are capable of.

Is China gradually shaking off its rep as design copycats?  

We get people copying us, like the Narcissist table we designed for BD Barcelona Design, or the Emperor light for Moooi. It’s interesting that when people start copying Chinese brands, the Chinese government gets annoyed and says, “This can’t happen to a Chinese brand!” But are they doing enough (to enforce copyright laws)?

The hard thing is many of these copies are masterminded by foreigners. For example, knock-offs of Fritz Hansen (a Danish design brand known for its iconic furniture) are spearheaded by a Danish guy familiar with the European market. There are two to three big brands in China, notorious for copies, that are now completely changing directions. China is putting more value on good, original design. They have no choice because they have to compete globally.

For us, we just continue to create and to educate. That’s why we moved back to China. If we had stayed in the US, we would probably be a comfortable small practice and have no risk of being copied. But at the end of the day, we can either be critical or continually have problems and tackle them first-hand by being in the region. And by educating and making a difference, we hope that people will eventually get it.

How do you see Neri&Hu’s within the big picture?

Design Republic (Neri&Hu’s retail concept store) is a platform for design. We bring international architects and products designers to Shanghai to speak, show their work, and to engage with the local designers here. Past invited speakers include the likes of David Chipperfield, Marcel Wanders, Konstantin Grcic and Sou Fujimoto.

The projects bestowed upon us, and the design briefs coming out of many Chinese visionaries, are phenomenal. We’re in an amazing time, it’s that “Asian time” like the Renaissance period in Europe. And, hopefully, one day, we can give the best of what China can offer, from a design point of view, back to the world.

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