My father’s only goal was for me to either be a lawyer or an engineer, so I lied to him, shares Lyndon Neri, one-half of the Shanghai-based architecture and design practice Neri&Hu, on pursuing architecture at the University of California-Berkeley.
His partner in business and in life, Rossana Hu, likewise remembers her choices being challenged at the time. Coming from a Chinese family, you’re always questioned, ‘How are you going to pay the bills?’
It’s safe to assume that their families hold no grudges. After completing their respective master’s degrees at Harvard and Princeton, Lyndon and Rossana went on to establish their practice in 2004, and have become one of the most prominent design firms to emerge from Shanghai in the last decade.
With a diverse body of work not limited to architecture and interior design, but also including branding and graphics, their portfolio spans residential, commercial, hospitality and cultural and academic projects throughout Asia, the US, and UK. The latest validation of their success came last November, when the practice was honoured World’s Outstanding Chinese Designer at the Hong Kong Design Centre’s DFA Awards.
Here, Lyndon and Rossana candidly talk about developing their aesthetic, architects who inspire them, and the future of design.
Tell us about your respective paths to architecture.
Rossana Hu: I struggled during my teenage years with not knowing what I wanted to do, but very early on I knew I loved the creative field. However, I was also quite realistic, and coming from a Chinese family, you’re always questioned, How are you going to pay the bills? I was very academically driven so I had considered going to law school, engineering school, and sort of by chance I entered as an architecture major and the very first studio class, I just loved it.
Lyndon Neri: I had a typical Asian upbringing as well, so there was absolutely no way you could even consider art. But I always wanted to be an artist, so when I went to the States when I was 15, I lied to my father. In my first two years in college I studied fine arts. One day my father called and said, I think I might move to America to be closer to you. I panicked and thought about how I could transfer to engineering. That was almost impossible, so architecture turned out to be a happy medium, which my father could think of as real estate, and I led him to believe that. This was in the 1980s when real estate was booming in America. My kind of architecture was far from what he imagined it was going to be, but it’s been an amazing ride and he has accepted the fact that I lied to him.
How would you describe your aesthetic, and how is this expressed in your projects?
We like a quote by the French philosopher Antoine de Saint-Exupery, who once said, We do not aspire to be eternal beings, we only hope that things do not lose its meaning. In many ways this quote is embedded deeply within the ethos of our practice.
In terms of process, for every project, we always start with a concept and attempt to research from all directions, looking for traces and signs that give inspiration to form. We are still too young to have a distinct language, so we flow in many directions depending on the specificity of the project. 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.
What influences your design perspective and your work?
We are very much inspired by the everyday, the mundane and the ordinary. The very fabric of Shanghai as a city and the everyday activities in and around the city is very much an inspiration.
Aesthetics are very subjective. What was ugly 20 years ago is cool now. — Lyndon Neri and Rosanna Hu
What projects are you most proud of?
Perhaps the initial projects when our practice was very small and we had to be very hands on with everything including the details. Projects like the Waterhouse, Design Republic Commune and the Split House.
What is your definition of a well-designed space?
Aesthetics are very subjective. What was ugly 20 years ago is cool now. So, as designers, we ask, What’s the idea behind this? We judge good design on, first, whether or not the idea is appropriate to begin with – within the parameters they are working – and second, whether that concept was executed.
Which architects or artists do you most admire?
Among the contemporary architects today, we admire the work of Saana, Alvaro Siza, David Chipperfield, and Peter Zumthor. The breakthroughs SAANA has achieved with a fresh aesthetic in dematerializing architecture and manipulation of program is amazing. Alvaro Siza’s manipulation of spaces, Chipperfield’s pedagogical discipline, and Zumthor’s material sensitivity and detail are all quite inspiring.
What is the future of design?
It will be less about personalities or stars but about real people, real solutions, for real societies.