If Lyndon Neri weren’t so confident, I’d be worried that he was having an identity crisis. “It’s interesting that people categorically describe us as a Chinese studio,” Neri muses. “I’m Chinese but I was born in the Philippines. I’m what they call in Mandarin hua chao. My first dialect is Fukien, which is Hokkien, which is Taiwanese – most Singaporeans speak it as well. Rosanna [Hu], my wife and business partner, was born in Taiwan. So we’re not American-born Chinese. Are we Americans? Not really. Are we Chinese? Not really. Are we Filipino? Not really. We are who we are, but people like to try and put you in a certain category.”
But while architecture critics try to categorise the couple, they both keep their heads down and get on with the job of running Neri & Hu, the interdisciplinary architecture and design firm that they founded in Shanghai in 2004. Much has been made of the couple’s shrewd decision to establish the studio in China before the country was seen as a viable base for architects, but Neri admits that this was more by accident than design.
“I was working for Michael Graves’ studio in New York and I was posted to Shanghai, this was back in 2003,” he explains. “We were doing a project called Three on the Bund in Shanghai, and it was supposed to be a six-week assignment. But then they extended it to 10 weeks, so I told the client, ‘If you want me for that long, then you’ve got to bring my wife and my kids along.’ So that 10 weeks went by and then Sars came, and we couldn’t leave Shanghai. Then the client was so used to having me there that he prolonged for a year. And in the end I never went back to America. So people often say, ‘Oh Lyndon, you’re extremely strategic, you put yourself in Shanghai back then.’ But I didn’t. I wish I was that strategic.”
Since that unexpected move to China, the American-educated couple have slowly become known as two of the country’s most ambitious and daring young architects. They work on everything from buildings to interior design to furniture collections, and currently have clients in the United States, Europe and Asia. One of Neri & Hu’s most interesting projects – and one that really reveals the couple’s ambitions for their studio – is The Waterhouse at South Bund, a boutique hotel in Shanghai’s Cool Docks development that was unveiled in 2010.
The Waterhouse is a luxury hotel, and the rooms come with the expected four-figure prices, but it’s hardly a typical five-star property. For a start, it’s based inside a 1930s factory building. But this isn’t some arty warehouse space that has been gutted and filled with a plush modern interior. Instead, Neri & Hu left lots of the building in its original, and somewhat dilapidated, state. There are exposed bricks, crumbling plasterwork and panels made out of rusting metal. It’s raw, true to its industrial past and has a lot more character than the marble-clad spaces luxury travellers have become used to. On top of that, the couple really wanted guests to experience what Neri describes as the “essence” of Shanghai, and thus designed the hotel so that visitors get glimpses into public areas from their rooms, and vice versa.
“It’s really [similar to] a traditional vertical lane house, wherein if you’re in one of the toilets someone can see you,” Neri says, completely matter-of-factly. “It’s all extremely transparent. So you have to really protect yourself from voyeuristic gazes. If you’re in the restaurant, you look up and see bedrooms, and someone could be half naked. But that’s the reality of lane houses in Shanghai today – people live in those conditions. I live in an old house, and if I don’t have my shades down in the morning then the old lady cooking [next door] could see me butt naked.”
This rough-around-the-edges project, though, is miles away from the elegant furniture and delicate tableware that Neri & Hu produces for its own furniture line. With so many things being produced by the studio, it’s hard to pin down any sort of characteristic style, though this doesn’t seem to concern Neri.
“Given the fact that we’re practising in Shanghai, naturally I think we do things within the context of the Chinese city and the Chinese context,” he admits. “But is there a style? I’d call it obsessions. We have certain obsessions about public and private. We have certain obsessions about rebranding culture. We have obsessions on reformulating contextual history. We have interests and obsessions of old and new.
“I think inevitably a lot of these, when they come together, they probably have a certain look. But I can’t predict myself. I’m so unpredictable I surprise myself. I don’t think it’s about style. Architecture should not be about style, architecture should be about meaning.”
Perhaps it’s this search for meaning that allows Neri & Hu to work on such varied projects in the first place. “I think Renaissance needs to be brought back to society today,” Neri states adamantly. “The problem with the architecture and design field today is the notion of separation, people start separating themselves, saying, ‘I’m good at this or that.’ Sometimes I go to the USA, where we have a project, and I’ll sit there and there’ll be literally 18 consultants – acoustical consultant, carpet consultant, furniture consultant. And everyone goes, “I’ll wait for your sheet to come,” and at the end it goes in circles for two hours.
“Then you leave that place and you’re like,‘Who’s responsible for what?’ I think architects, by nature of our training, need to take responsibility to bring the design field to another level – and being multi-disciplinary is very important to that. “During the Renaissance time, when there was Borromini, Bernini and Michelangelo, if you put this situation into their faces, they’d say, ‘This is very strange.’ They were not just designers, they were also stonemasons, they also knew how things are put together, so they were not drawing things out of whimsy.
“Is it harder to be multidisciplinary? Absolutely. I’ll probably die earlier because of it. But I think the whole process is an educational one, and I think a lot of people are attracted by the fact that we are multidisciplinary and that we can see from different perspectives.” Neri is in Hong Kong to discuss these ever-changing perspectives in a lecture he’s entitled “Old/New: A Historical Luxury”, which he will deliver to a crowd at the inaugural International Design Furniture Fair Hong Kong. After he’s finished his talk tonight, he’s jetting straight to Europe to check on several under-construction projects on the continent. One of these is a commission to design a branding company’s headquarters in Cologne, Germany, though there will be little that is corporate about the design of this complex.
“It’s quite radical, because I’m taking that building and taking the whole roof off,” Neri reports gleefully. “So you enter, you think you’re entering the building, then all of sudden you’re like, ‘This is not a skylight,’ and the rain and the snow comes down.” But whether it’s building roofless office spaces or adding another armchair to its range of furniture, there is one thing that links all of the studio’s projects, Neri concedes.
"Everything we do we put 100 percent into,” he admits. “We’re passionate about the things we do. So I think eventually people will be able to see the authenticity of our work.”