New generation summons wind of change from West

Wedded to a love of modern aesthetics, one couple's innovations are helping shape contemporary projects on the mainland

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 16 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 17 January, 2013, 10:52am

Over the last decade, some of China's most intriguing design projects have been created by two architects who are business partners - and husband and wife. Philippines-born Lyndon Neri and Taiwan-born Rossana Hu met as students and in 2002 moved to Shanghai, where the Harvard-educated Neri worked with US architect Michael Graves to transform a post-Renaissance landmark into Three on the Bund, an award-winning modern lifestyle centre.

Although Rossana had just given birth to their third child and says she expected Shanghai to be a temporary sojourn, the couple realised that they had happened upon an unprecedented time in China's emerging contemporary design world and decided to stay.

Struck by the paucity of contemporary international design, the couple blazed their own creative trail, launching Design Republic, featuring modern furniture and objects such as Dutch design company Droog's quirky lamps, Alessi's classic kitchen products and BD Barcelona Design's sculptural furniture.

The showroom also featured the duo's own designs, reflecting their trademark understated aesthetic blending Chinese crafts and Western functionality. Products include their Zisha tea set handmade by traditional craftsmen using rare purple clay, and woven bamboo Emperor lamp designed for Moooi.

By 2004 the duo had also established Neri&Hu Design and Research Office, producing highly functional but innovative work for a diverse range of high-end projects from master planning, architecture and interiors to branding and graphics.

They transformed Waterhouse on South Bund, which was originally a three-storey Japanese army headquarters building dating to the 1930s, with new additions made using Cor-Ten steel to reflect the working dock's industrial past. They transformed it into a modern 19-room boutique hotel that drew international attention. The understated interiors contrast old and new with a blend of smooth concrete, rusted iron and exposed brickwork, with minimalist furniture from classic Danish designers Arne Jacobsen and Hans Wegner adding texture and depth. The notion of private and public space was turned on its head with unexpected visual connections and dynamic interactions between guest rooms and public areas, winning the duo the prestigious Architectural Review Award for emerging architecture in 2010.

The couple also collaborated with Japanese master architect Kengo Kuma on Swire Group's The Opposite House hotel in Beijing's Chaoyang district (and at Swire's EAST, Beijing, which opened last year). Here their modern interpretation of traditional Chinese themes revealed rooms with sleek, minimalist furnishings, brushed oak hardwood floors and square wooden bathroom fittings. Meanwhile in the hotel's modern restaurant Bei, Neri&Hu created a whimsical, forest-inspired experience dominated by a constellation of bulbs dangling from the ceiling, with chefs performing in front of a mirror behind the bar.

The duo is known to break down barriers and go against type. Last year, they challenged preconceptions of the traditional hotel lobby for Pentahotel Beijing. The contemporary rustic décor of the bistro-style space, charcoal granite flooring, brick walls and comfortable leather club chairs draws a cosmopolitan crowd of guests, local residents and visitors, while the hotel's games room, featuring the usual Wii and video games, conveniently also doubles as an unconventional entertainment space.

"Context is all important," says Neri. "Rossana and I are quite fanatical about details. When we take on a project it is important to be involved - beyond being an architect - to the detailed level to create an authentic experience."

Neri&Hu's modern and imaginative interiors drew Hong Kong entrepreneur Yenn Wong to commission the firm to design her newest Shanghai dining venture, Capo, a modern Italian restaurant in a 1911 building. The structure presented a unique challenge, says Neri. "It was an attic space that couldn't be changed dramatically because of the planning restrictions, so instead we decided on an introverted design option drawing inspiration from the classic basilica style, imbuing the interiors with a religious Renaissance narrative." A distinctive plaster fresco ceiling, bespoke hand-blown lighting and more than 100 gigantic candles and authentic religious antiques sourced from the Philippines add to the shadowy modern monastery ambience, while Neri's replicas of Renaissance paintings like The Last Supper, re-imagined to poetic effect with bright Capo colours and illustrations, add a distinctive touch.

The client also commissioned the duo to create interiors for 22 Ships, a tapas bar on Ship Street in Wan Chai. "The interior design was deliberately kept uncomplicated," Neri says. "We really wanted to bring the spirit of Wan Chai's history into the design, and to create an eclectic dining space that would stylishly blend into an area which is quickly becoming a hip and trendy place to spend an evening."

While keeping the classic open-kitchen tapas bar as the main focus, they created street-facing seats and wide-open doors and windows to create a visual frame linking the busy street-side and urban-rustic modern interiors. The designers' signature propensity for testing conventions is also on show at Hong Kong's Pedder Red House, with its two-storey wooden box clad with woven strips of stained oak, evoking the stitching on shoes, which also, says Neri, "brings storage on to centre stage".

Although trained in the US and outspoken on the state of modern architecture in China, they they are optimistic about the future of design in their new homeland.

"There is a move away from stripping historic interiors and signs of growing interest in conservation," says Neri. The pair have also noted increased appreciation of China's unique traditions. Projects such as Neri&Hu's adventurous design of The Overlapping House, a private residence for an extended family in Singapore, no doubt helps highlight the value of heritage thanks to its siheyuan courtyard-house typology, paying homage to the client's Chinese roots. The design, resembling a pair of L-shaped overlapping arms, also incorporates elegant teak louvres to encourage natural ventilation.

The couple are keen to spread their passion and expertise by mentoring staff and lecturing at universities. Last year, they established The Design Republic Commune in a former colonial police station in Shanghai's Jingan district. Reworked with their unmistakable modernist style, the space is now home to a series of design stores and showrooms, and acts as a centre for events that Neri says he hopes will encourage discussions about architecture, product design and interior design.

"We want to bring the best of what the world can offer to China and hopefully one day bring the best of what China can offer back to the world," he says.