July 12, 2017

Lyndon Neri & Rossana Hu: 2013 Hall of Fame Inductees

In China, thousands of buildings with history and character have been discarded—replaced by towers that are undistinguished, often indistinguishable. But there are no-table exceptions, particularly the work of Lyndon Neri and Rossana Hu, who juxtapose Eastern and Western influences to historically insightful, visually striking effect. It is a task for which the husband-wife architects are uniquely suited. Natives of the Philippines and Taiwan, respectively, they met as students at the University of California, Berkeley, then worked for Interior Design Hall of Fame member Michael Graves in Princeton, New Jersey, before founding the Shanghai firm now called Neri & Hu Design and Research Office.

Like Graves, Neri and Hu work at scales from urban plan to tabletop. Exhibition design joined the mix with the Luis Barragán tribute currently at Mexico City’s Museo de Arte Moderno. Asked about the Pritzker Architecture Prize winner’s clear, colorful forms, Neri says, “We didn’t think, at first, that we had been influenced by Barragán—we had always focused more on Adolf Loos and Carlo Scarpa. But after seeing Barragán’s work, we realized we were influenced subconsciously by what he does. Take away the color, and the resemblances are amazing.”

Vanke model house in Shanghai, 2010. Photography by Shen Zhonghai.

Hall of Fame member Calvin Tsao, who has a number of projects in China, says Neri and Hu are “responding to where the culture is and at the same time moving the culture forward. They’re sympathetic souls—insightful,  philosophical, sharp, and worldly with feet planted in the realism of today.”

Neri & Hu has won international acclaim for renovations that reinterpret but don’t eradicate the past, presenting the contemporary as part of an architectural time line. For the Waterhouse at South Bund—a boutique hotel in a 1930’s industrial building used in the ’40’s as the Japanese army headquarters—that involved such moves as adding a penthouse in Cor-Ten steel and installing mirror-lined shutters in the courtyard to cast intriguing and occasionally voyeuristic reflections depending on how the shutters are angled. Making the past palpable, the lobby is a palimpsest of fading paint, old plaster, and recovered brick. “You should be able to touch the history of the building,” Hu says.

Also in Shanghai, Y+ Yoga and Wellness Center, 2006. Photography by Derryck Menere.

Originally located on the historic river-front Bund, the enterprising couple’s retail venture, Design Republic, brings furniture and housewares from around the world to Shanghai’s burgeoning middle class. Pieces by Neri & Hu are some of the best there. Neri wittily describes a sofa recalling Tang dynasty opium beds, but with contemporary proportions, as intended for people whose addictions are a cup of coffee and the Sunday paper. A chair in walnut and leather, evoking Charles and Ray Eames, “has modern classic written all over,” says David Alhadeff, whose Future Perfect stores sell it in New York and San Francisco. At an even smaller scale are teacups in a clay renowned for its rich textures and purple tones.

Design Republic has now moved to a redbrick former police station shared with a sister restaurant, event space, and one-room hotel, all known collectively as Design Republic Design Commune. Elsewhere in Shanghai, Neri & Hu has designed restaurants with theatrical grandeur. “They really know how to orchestrate a dining experience,” Tsao says. One of the latest, Capo, is in the attic of a 1911 building: a collection of dramatic spaces ranging from narrow passageways to a basilicalike dining room lined in ghostly gray brick.

The pool at the Westin Xi’an, 2012. Photography by Pedro Pegenaute. 

From the restaurants that once dominated Neri & Hu’s portfolio, projects have increased in scale while continuing to distill China’s rich cultural history. The firm’s first ground-up hotel, the Westin Xi’an, combines high-tech dazzle with heavy masonry reminiscent of the city’s ramparts. Designing a Zhengzhou high-rise, another debut, the couple began exploring ways to incorporate the courtyard paradigms of Shanghai’s lane houses and Beijing’s hutongs to give the building roots. “For Chinese cities,” Neri says, “it’s a matter of survival.” 

Recent Projects