Neri & Hu Interview
Neri&Hu is an inter-disciplinary architectural practice, operative since 2004 by partners Lyndon Neri and Rossana Hu, based in Shanghai, China with an additional office in London, UK. The multiple award-winning practice (their most recent awards being the 2014 Designer of the year by Wallpaper* Magazine, London UK and the Hall of Fame 2013 by Interior Design Magazine, New York, USA) has undertaken projects in architecture, master planning, interior, graphic and product design at an international level. Composed of a multi-cultural staff speaking over 30 languages, Neri&Hu’s vision is to respond to a global worldview incorporating overlapping design disciplines for a new paradigm in architecture.
Both of you qualified architects, you have taught at the University of Hong Kong Graduate School of Architecture, often invited as critics in several design US schools, and you have both worked in large projects in the US and Asia for a number of architectural practices prior to establishing your own, additionally developing your own lighting, furniture and decoration product line. Your plethora of received awards could mean you have stricken that very sought-after balance between theoretical and practical experience?
We consider ourselves very lucky and blessed to be able to do what we love and still make a living and create a business (platform) for other designers to work on what they love as well. We don’t know if we have achieved the sought after balance, as we feel that there are many things we are not able to do and we would like to do better. The business and practice side of architecture is shifting from traditional models and we are looking for ways to accommodate those changes.
Refined is another way to characterise your designs. How would you describe your design process, as a duo?
Interdisciplinary research is part of our design process. It is intrinsically intertwined with every project from the start.
For every project, we always start with a concept and we also do a lot of research. We are still too young to have a distinct language. We think it is important to experiment and explore different design ideas. Of course there are issues that we always explore such as layering, transparency, texture, framing and materiality. So in essence some of these issues are always part of our projects. Questions of culture and aesthetic philosophy concern us deeply and we also want to relate what we do to the everyday and the public.
One perceives other ethnic characteristics in your work, yet the result emits a distinct and delicate geometry that strikes as very Chinese. Is designing with roots in history a conscious approach, based on your experience?
The western architectural tradition forms the basis of our architectural education, but culturally we are very much Chinese, and there are Influences particularly in our work that’s located in China. We also like to examine local culture of where our work is so that depends on where the project is located.
We are conscious of who we are, in terms of our personal identity and how it informs our design, but we are not trying to be “Chinese” in our design at all. Any cultural element should come from a natural surfacing beneath rather than forced application. Cultural identification is a natural result of work by anyone. We now shy away from cultural referencing, even more than before, hoping to establish who we are as distinctive designers with our own voice. Rooted in culture, but not defined by culture.
Your interiors appear precisely engineered in terms of view and focal points as if you are determined to present the user with a very specific sequence of visual experiences. Could you elaborate on this strict, almost surgical method?
It’s a result of being very disciplined on developing our ideas into every detail and considering different points of reference when experiencing the space. Focusing on the details is key to making the design appear refined. Also paying attention to procession, as one moves through the space we design, as opposed to seeing it from above as an object. Experiencing space is what we are obsessed about.
The discreet simplicity of lines and the manipulation of mass in your body of built work set it apart from its surroundings, giving it a serene, ethereal notion. Is this part of your design aim?
We never thought about it in that light. Every project is different, but we do want to strike a balance between our context and what we build. To also do just enough, not too much, is a difficult equilibrium to strike. Sometimes we are more successful than others. There are times we look at a finished project and say, oh we wish we had done it this way or that way…etc. We are always looking for a better way to achieve harmony with differentiation.
Not withstanding your tactful use of historical elements, you are not averse to bold statements- be they insertions, colours, patinas or ascension levels, such as in your Chengdu Opera house and Gallery proposal, or your Venice architecture Biennale 2014 participation. Is there a particular kind of atmosphere that you intend for your buildings?
There isn’t anything that is appropriate universally in architecture. Each project has different sets of considerations and deals with different issues, so we don’t try to find the same mood or atmosphere in every building. However, there are personal tastes that drive our design decisions, so maybe these shape the overall work and make them look like there are similarities for comparison.
Mr Neri, you majored in Fine Arts, initially aspiring to become a painter and switching to architecture to reconcile between your passion and your father’s Asian pragmatic realism. What is your current view of the eastern art world, would you say this pragmatism has somehow softened? I suspect any personal regrets over your career choice must have somehow softened too?
Times are very different now and the society’s view on artists has dramatically changed. There is truly a renaissance of art coming out of Asia and not just from China and Korea but also from Southeast Asian countries like Vietnam, the Philippines and Thailand. I am however troubled by this phenomena, as the only reason behind the acceptance of artists in our mainstream society today is still very much associated to its economic returns as opposed to art as a piece of work to provoke, question and hopefully change our lives.
In a world where we are constantly encouraged, even urged by social media to reveal everything about ourselves and our daily routine, can you define the importance of transparency? How selective should that be in architecture, and where should the blurring of private/public space stop?
There is neither one answer, nor a right answer. We see transparency in buildings as separate from transparency in life. In spaces, the transparency serves a purpose, and if used in a suitable application, it can reveal things that bring about interesting experiences or challenge social order. These cases make the result intellectually stimulating, and therefore create value in architecture or interior design. In life, it is completely a personal thing. We think that soon people will realize all this transparency is too much and privacy will be much more valued and sought after. In the future privacy may become the ultimate luxury.