With an array of contextually sensitive yet profoundly original designs, Neri & Hu have long been a design firm that captured our interest. Their award-winning renovation of a lane house, “Rethinking the Split House”, was featured in ARCHINESIA Volume 7, and the firm’s approach of ‘reflective nostalgia’ was discussed as a part of our Cover Story “Future of the Past” in ARCHINESIA Volume 9.
Originally based in Shanghai since 2004, the firm founded by Lyndon Neri and Rossana Hu has opened an additional office in London. They have garnered numerous international accolade, including the RIBA Awards and commendations in the World Architecture Festival.
Lyndon Neri was invited as one of the speakers in Anabata Live Series #3 in December 2017, and ARCHINESIA was given the opportunity to chat with him. In this interview, we dig into how Neri & Hu’s practice works—from their initial process to their influences, methodologies, and ideologies.
ARCHINESIA: We would like to know more about the process that goes behind Neri & Hu. Can you describe what happens after you receive a project brief from your clients—where do you begin to get your ideas?
LYNDON NERI: First, we have a lot of [client] requests every month but I have a team that selects and sort of interviews clients to see if they have the right projects. Sometimes we get as many as 40-45 projects per month, sometimes we don’t take any. In fact, most of the time we don’t take them.
If we do take the projects and if my team decided it was good, either me or Rossana would then look into it carefully. Once we get the brief, the two of us often discuss what we think the project should be. And then we give a certain parameter in terms of the spirit of the project. Oftentimes there would be a writing or maybe I would be doing sketches.
Then I would pick a few people and the research begins. Oftentimes the research is not just about form or mode—we tend to understand the area and what the programme is. History and typologies are very important to us. Before we even venture into shape, colour, and material—which only becomes important much later—there’s a lot of debate for maybe two or three weeks, where my whole team gets together and really discuss about ideas. It becomes much easier once you have a strong conceptual framework on how a project should be approached.
You seem to have a very close-knit approach to your projects, from being very selective about choosing what to undertake, and then meticulously discuss with the team about how to proceed with the project. How many people does your office employ?
Interestingly enough, people are always surprised by how big we are! We have about 110 people, but you have to remember that we have product designers, interior designers, graphic designers, and architects. There is always constant dialogue. We are 110 but we don’t act like a corporate practice. We are actually many different small studios in a big practice.
The idea of being able to control each project is the most important thing for us. As just me and Rossana, I think it would be impossible to really look at every possible aspect of the project. It’s more important to have more people, so they can look at different things—the programme, details—and then we can study it together.
What is the method that you use to ensure that your office has the same view about a project?
When we started, it was harder because not a lot of people know what we’re thinking. It’s easier now because we have a body of work. So, the people who come to us actually understand our methodology and also the spirit in which we practice architecture.
We have a very interdisciplinary way of approaching it—in many ways, every project goes through the whole system. I make sure my product team understands architecture, architects understand the interior team, or architects understand product design. Some argued that it’s highly academic, but you need to understand diagrams and concepts to understand each other and ensure that it’s very strong. I think this interdisciplinary methodology of having different mediums come together on a singular project makes a layered approach that is richer and more interesting.
There’s a lot of questioning between teams, sometimes big arguments, you know. And so I have to come in and kind of like [swoosh noise] divide! We have a few projects where people don’t talk to each other for a while because they get so emotional and passionate about what they do. But conflict is good, I think. If there is no conflict then there is really no resolution.
It’s harder now—we have a lot of projects in Europe and I find it very hard to control. I put up an office in London precisely to control this! We’re still learning and struggling and we’re being very careful—working on a project in Miami, shortlisted in L. A. and New York—all very interesting projects but I’m nervous because I’m a control freak [laughs].
You were raised with a variety of cultural backgrounds—Chinese and Filipino—and you received your education as an architect in the United States. What things from your backgrounds do you carry in your practice?
I was educated my first fifteen years in a Chinese school. So, I’m fundamentally very Chinese. I speak Chinese at home and my first dialect is Hokkien, that is my native tongue. But being born in the Philippines, I was surrounded with this very crazy, kind of emotional, artistic environment.
So, as a kid I had these two mindsets constantly. This idea of a very rigorous, strict Chinese education, and when I go out with friends it was very free, very relaxed, very loose, very artistic—and it was great growing up to have these two diametrically opposite ideologies of life.
Then I went to America. It was very interesting because the education in America taught me that the emotions or the feelings I have need to be put within a framework of a concept, an ideology. So, it was a perfect marriage of my Chinese education and my Filipino upbringing. It became quite interesting because I had the discipline of the Chinese education, the freedom and the sort of artistic sensibility of a Filipino community, and yet I have the academic rigor of an American institution, so it helps me tremendously.
Now, coming back and practicing in a really frenetic, absolutely chaotic city like Shanghai, actually all three different backgrounds help me strengthen how we approach our projects.
What does Shanghai mean to you in the context of your practice, especially now that you have expanded globally?
Shanghai’s been a very interesting city in many ways. Shanghai is an amalgamation of every bit that I told you about—the spirited 1920s; the roaring, sort of sinful Shanghai reminds me of the freedom and hospitality and warmth that the Filipino have—and yet it’s quite rigorous academically.
Because of all the foreign infiltration, Shanghai would arguably be the most cosmopolitan of all Chinese cities. You can see the influx of both the influence, and at the same time the resistance, to many of these influences. These tensions happen every day, and you see it in the layers of not just history, but a layered manifestation made concrete through architectural forms, through interiors. I find this fascinating.
When we started, I did not want to have a practice in Shanghai. Rossana and I had wanted to practice in New York or San Francisco, or in Asia maybe Hong Kong or Singapore. I happened to be in Shanghai in 2003, when what was supposed to be a three-month project management oversight turned into six months, then into a year. After that, I started my own thing.
So, it was accidental—when you said how we go globally, it was not even planned, it was not strategic. We just did our work based on what we do and one thing led to another. But we’re very lucky to be where we are and we’re very happy that we had stayed.
People often ask: “How did you make it so international?” We didn’t plan. I think the most important thing is just to do good work. If you do good work and you like what you do, eventually people will find you.
There was a lack of many different things when we started. We’re first and foremost architects, but for many years in Shanghai we did interiors just because we have no other projects. We were known to be more of interior designers—that’s actually another strength. People see the furniture we do in our interiors and they ask us to do product design.
So how does your architectural background fit into your interior and product design practices?
You know, there was really no separation before. If you look at the Renaissance period, if you look at Michelangelo, Bernini and Borromini, and even up until the Bauhaus time it’s about ‘total design’. Walter Gropius talked about the notion of thinking about many different things.
Even a number of this group of great thinkers outside of Bauhaus—from Adolf Loos to Carlo Scarpa to Mies van der Rohe—they always deal with architecture, interior, and product design. When you talk about Mies van der Rohe, even though it’s very simple, his interior comes in, and he was controlling.
It’s only the last maybe fifty years when people start to separate them, maybe because in the United States there are a lot of liability issues. So people start to specialize. When you start specializing, that’s when you lose control of the process.
You believe that a more comprehensive outlook would make design stronger.
Oh, yeah! And not only that, you as an architect would become more important and significant. The whole idea of just purely doing architecture … a lot of architects don’t care about the interior. They only care about the shapes, and they don’t really care about what the interior looks like.
For example, you know Daniel Libeskind? I understand his statement when he did the Holocaust Centre. When he transferred that for a residential tower in Singapore with the beam, he’s saying it’s a statement. But the people who are living in there hardly have any windows. That, I find quite problematic. I’m not saying it’s bad architecture, it’s just not the way I would do it.
You have said that architects today tend to avoid being labelled with a style, leading to eclecticism or ‘no style’. Does Neri & Hu attempt to distinguish itself from other architects? If so, how?
Meaning. I think obviously one can argue Neri & Hu has a style, one would say. I hope that is deeper than just style, that the things that come out of our office is a manifestation of an ideology rather than a decorative motif. I believe practices that have buildings that comes out of an ideology will last longer.
If you look at Paul Rudolph for instance—there’s a building in Jakarta by Paul Rudolph [Intiland Tower, or previously known as Wisma Dharmala, in Sudirman –ed]—whether you agree with him or not is a different story. But I believe that it comes from a strong ideology rather than a stylistic point of view.
If it’s purely style, history will tell. Very quickly it would not be significant. But if it comes out of a meaning and certain ideology and somehow the byproduct of it is a manifestation of those ideas, I think eventually it would be respected.
What would you say is Neri & Hu’s ideology?
The ideology stems from a lot of our obsessions. There are a number of things. We deal with the notion of nostalgia—the idea of reflective nostalgia. We also believe in the idea of interiority—not interiors per se, obviously they are two different disciplinary practices. The nature of what we do, we call it “total design”. There are a number of other obsessions, like the blurring of the public and the private, how you deal with old and new. All of that sort of augments the key obsessions that we have.
The event Anabata Live Series #3, featuring Lyndon Neri of Neri & Hu and Makoto Tanijiri of Suppose Design Office, was covered in ARCHINESIA’s latest edition, Volume 13 (May 2018).
Interview by Dinda Mundakir and Daniel Jiang
Transcription by Diah Puspita Sari
Text by Dinda Mundakir