An interview with Neri & Hu [part 2]

The Waterhouse at South Bund (photographed by Pedro Pegenaute)

…continuing from Part 1

“From a spoon to a city”

What really impressed me, and it’s significant during the whole conversation, is the consistency of their design-thinking, which merges together their private lifestyle with their design process and their corporate communication. All is one. And is my belief that this is the reason of their success. To use their own words, the key of their success is “being true to yourself and have a passion for what you do”. And their passion really reaches in every corner of the design world: from graphic design, furniture design, product design, interior design, to architecture. And it’s very surprising nowadays to see a practice still able to perform successfully in so many different areas. “From a spoon to a city” was the slogan created by Italian architect Ernesto Nathan Rogers in 1952 to explain the typical approach of an architect in Milan for whom didn’t matter if it was a spoon, a chair, a lamp, or a skyscraper, it would have always been the same design-thinking. This was during the Golden Era of Italian design. Then things changed. According to Rossana the change started in the United States, where bureaucracy got everyone afraid of lawsuits and therefore everyone had to specialize and strictly stick to that specific field. “The Renaissance period of Michelangelo and Leonardo has disappeared.” Until today Chinese legal system still has many gray areas, and company operating in China has to deal with the pros and cons of it. One of the pros is that studios can still afford to work on different design areas, just like Italians designers did back then.

The Waterhouse at South Bund (photographed by Pedro Pegenaute)

The Waterhouse at South Bund (photographed by Pedro Pegenaute)

“We don’t spend time thinking if our design is Chinese enough”

Talking about design in Asia, a comparison with Japan bumps up immediately: Japan has an easily recognizable visual identity. It can be furniture, graphics, architecture or interior, everyone with a basic design knowledge would immediately spot a Japanese product among many others. This happens despite the fact that in Japan architects and designers produce pieces that are quite distant from their ancient visual traditions. In China many designers try to produce Chinese pieces by reusing [copying?] ancient Chinese patterns or shapes.  In the end, while Japanese design shows to have its own language even without its traditional symbolism, Chinese visual identity is lost as soon as it is not employing any of its traditional materials or patterns. So how can can Neri&Hu with its international background be able to produce timeless Chinese pieces? In Lyndon’s words they have never even spent a single minute thinking of how make their design Chinese, or Asian. All the design process is always been focused on answering these simple questions: is this good enough? Is this going to benefit the client? Lyndon also said that once Toyo Ito was in town, and while having lunch together he said that in his studio nobody has ever been thinking even once about how to make their architecture more Japanese -isch. Instead, trying to straightforwardly address the issues of the context they work and live in, Ito’s architecture naturally happens to look and feel authentic Japanese. Simply because that’s where the concept grew up and developed. The same attitude of being authentic to themselves is what permeates Neri&Hu work, and is the reason why they succeed where most other Chinese designers have so far failed: creating modern Chinese classics. But they think it’s a matter of time, more and more architects and designers are getting there, and interestingly enough most of them share an overseas education – exception made from 2012 Pritzker winner Wang Shu. Lyndon noticed how the same thing can be said for most of the famous Japanese architects apart from Tadao Ando. So it might really be a matter of time, as more and more Chinese are moving abroad to complete their studies, and more and more countries are loosening up their visa regulations toward Chinese visitors. It’s surprising to see how identity most of the times emerges from openness instead of closure: even Le Corbusier became truly successful only when his studio became a global practice, and he became significant only when he moved to India, and the same can be said for Mies Van der Rohe, who truly rose to glory after he moved to the US. They both agreed that every breakthrough comes from the engagement with global issues, never from within the ‘parochial’ context, even if the solution to these global issues generates within that particular context. This gives “local identity” to the final breakthrough.

“China’s speed is a little bit crazy, it’s almost a machine”

Neri&Hu is now a global practice, with a portfolio of works that spans from USA, UK, India, Brazil etc., an office already in London and one soon to be settled in New York. I asked them what they think is the main difference between working in China and working abroad. The first thing that came up to their minds was obviously speed. When working in China the problem is that architects don’t have the time to even really think about architecture, in the West the problem is that much of the thinking takes years to get done or is not even getting built at all. China being a fast developing country is only a part of the reason for this. In comparing the work environment they found while working in other developing countries [specifically BRIC] like India or Brazil, they see a level of efficiency with whom the investment gets through the whole deal, which you cannot see in those countries. The crazy speed with which Chinese built their solid and efficient infrastructures is a prove to that, with all its pros and cons.

ClassiCon - Sedan Chair. Neri&Hu 2013

ClassiCon – Sedan Chair. Neri&Hu 2013

“They want to express an opinion even when they don’t have one, or when their opinion is crap”

I asked the two architects how they felt about Chinese education in fostering creativity. Rossana pointed that Chinese education system is based on confucianism, which means examinations and scores, and categorizes a person very quickly and filters bad kids from going to better schools. This puts a lot of pressure on kids since a very young age and leaves very few room for random engagement and playing. I replied that most of the Italian designers that made the history of Italian design grew up and studied in an environment that did not promote creativity and engagement at all. Those who built the vast influence that “Made in Italy” still exerts today are a group of designers and architects that were born at the end of the beginning of the 20th century or even at the end of the 19th. Lets name some of the designers behind Italy’s iconic design that has emerged in those years: Ettore Sottsass born in 1917, Bruno Munari in 1907, Carlo Scarpa in 1906, Achille Castiglioni in 1918, Gae Aulenti in 1927, Giorgio de Chirico in 1888,Gio Ponti in 1891… the list could be longer. Most of them graduated between the two wars or during the Second World War, but even those who graduated in the early 50s, like Gae Aulenti, didn’t grow up in an educational environment that fostered creativity. Back then Italian schools generally offered a rather unemotional learning experience, probably even more oppressing than is the Chinese educational system of today. In fact, I personally believe that a unregulated environment is not always the most fertile soil to grow creative people, since creativity is an act of breaking the rules, of going against the existing environment, of believing that an other better world is possible.

Lyndon, who said he went to a very traditional Chinese school in the Philippines before going to the US for college, added that where creativity is really promoted and even invoked, some students get smugly creative: they want to express an opinion even when they don’t have one, or when their opinion is bad. So he spoke in defense of the discipline that exist in Chinese schools, but he agreed with Rossana that at one point this creative flow needs enough room to hover. Most of the successful Chinese architects nowadays are indeed those who one day eventually managed to move away from the strictly regulated educational system of China: the balance between discipline and room to play might be the key for creativity.

Continues on Part 3

Ming Chair by Neri&Hu for Stellar works

Ming Chair by Neri&Hu for Stellar works