An interview with Neri & Hu [part 3]

Le Meridien hotel, Zhengzhou. By Neri and Hu, photo by Pedro Pegenaute

…continuing from Part 2

“At work I’m organized and rational while I’m emotional and unstable on a personal level”

Room for randomness sometimes brings up nice surprises. And surprisingly enough, architecture and design were not young age vocations for neither of them. Lyndon wanted to be a painter but growing up in a Chinese family he was not allowed to pursue such a goal that was considered to be trivial. He had lied to his parents saying that he was studying mechanical engineering, but before they went to visit him in the States, he managed to switch to architecture, that was the only compromise for he could do, being an art student. Complementary to Lyndon, Rossana grew up as a model student in Taiwan who since young age had to excel in math and science, and was taught to get good grades. Only when she went to college she discovered that through architecture she could express a more emotional part of herself yet capitalizing from her scientific background. This complementarity is still visible grew to the extreme during these years of work, with Rossana being systematic and logical while Lyndon more sensitive and imaginative. The opposite can be said for them in their private lives, where Rossana admits to be very emotional and unstable. Neri&Hu is a practice where female architects are the vast majority. Both Rossana and Lyndon do not believe there is any gender difference in the way females and males approach a design task, to the point that they define themselves as being ‘gender-blind’.

Camper Showroom and Office, Shanghai (photographed by Shen Zhonghai)

Camper Showroom and Office, Shanghai (photographed by Shen Zhonghai)

“Young people need to slow down, and take some of the hardship and discipline that this profession requires”

Design business in China is moving a lot of money, and design itself is under the spotlight of the glamour people around the world. Lyndon fears that many students that are nowadays approaching this field for the glamour and the money instead of the passion for this profession, are going to be disappointed one day. Foreign students should not ignore china only for the bad publicity that goes on in the West; they should not think China as a bigger and crasser version of America only because the past thirty years of fast growth brought some consumerism distortions to its society, because China has in fact 5000 years of very different history. At the opposite side, Chinese students should travel abroad and engage in a real discourse with people from different cultures and opinions.

China is the land of opportunities, but Lyndon warned that China can also be a land of perdition. In fact, he said, many young professionals in China tend to set up their own practice soon after graduation. He thinks a certain amount of work experience under a good mentor is needed, and advices this time to be of at least six to seven years. After all they worked for Michael Graves for over ten years. What they witnessed in these years in China is that many people forgets the core passion need for this profession, especially when it comes to foreign architects coming to China to work for companies they might not like in order to gain some China-experience which looks good on the curriculum. Rossana would add to that young people need to slow down, and take some of the hardship and discipline that this profession requires. Architects from the older generation like Yung Ho Chang, Liu Jiakun, Wang Shu, Ma Qingyun, Ma Yansong, Li Xiaodong are among those they would suggest as mentors to those young designers that will to learn the pains and glory of doing architecture in China.

Solo - Dining Chair by Nery&Hu

Solo – Dining Chair by Nery&Hu

“There is a serious problem of self representation of Chinese design and architecture”

One of the reasons of the success of Neri&Hu, certainly relies on their ability to communicate their projects. Despite what some would think, they don’t rely on any marketing agency nor they put a specific budget on the communication side. They think communication is simply part of the narrative of the architectural design process: it helps deliver the right message to the public, to the client, and within the practice itself. Rossana thinks that while many Chinese designers lack the channels to bring their design achievements to an international audience, Neri&Hu has the opposite problem of being more famous abroad that within China. This might be because of one problem they faced while working in China: the lack of professional integrity when it comes to media.

There is a serious problem of self representation of Chinese design and architecture. While everyone is able to spot modern Japanese design in few seconds, it’s hard to do the same with Chinese design whenever it lack of its distinctive patterns that comes from its past traditions. Rossana argues that this comes from the way that China has been so far (mis-)represented in the West. In the stereotyped way the West described China, only a very narrow amount of motives and images were picked, basically all from the Ming and Qing dynasties era: dragons, phenixes, yellow, red, blue-green, etc. Aesthetics from the Tang or Song dynasties are usually not part of the imagery, this despite the heights that architecture and fine arts in general reached at that time. Architecture from the Tang dynasty for even exported to Japan, and nowadays is in fact better preserved in Japan than in China. The grace and delicacy of the artistic and craft production during the time of those dynasties was lost during the Ming and Qing eras, and is mistakenly taken today by the West as a Japanese exclusiveness. For those who are not familiar with Chinese history, in traditional China the dynasty had the rule over the artistic heritage of the empire. When the Qing dynasty took the power, they were considered barbarians by the predominant Han ethnicity people because they belonged to a minority, and thus they needed to rapidly build a new representative aesthetics. Qing dynasty eventually picked different imageries from other Chinese ethnic minorities. The distorted vision of what in the West is the representation of China comes partly from the fact that most of the preserved Chinese artistic heritage comes from the Qing dynasty era. Anyways Rossana believes that a coral voice for a new Chinese visual identity is about to come. Whether this voice will be homogenous and coherent, she is not sure about, but she definitely believes that soon there will be an internationally recognized modern Chinese visual imagery.

Le Meridien hotel, Zhengzhou. By Neri and Hu, photo by Pedro Pegenaute

Le Meridien hotel, Zhengzhou. By Neri and Hu, photo by Pedro Pegenaute

“Some schools are already introducing problem solving tasks to primary education”

Design is becoming more and more part of our everyday lives, and Rossana thinks it will become more and more a predominant element in our future. When talking about ‘design’, the boundaries of the definition of this word are blurring, and what Rossana sees as one of the leading elements in the creative field is what we start calling ‘design thinking’. Design thinking is about innovation, and originates in the type of education that designers and architects go through. A type of education that is becoming more and more important in the internet era, where people do not need to memorize as much as in the past, because it’s too easy to look up for informations, and that rather puts emphasis on the processing of these informations. The technological changes of the past couple of decades, will naturally lead to a revolution in the field of education, and some schools are already introducing problem solving tasks to primary education, in a way that resembles what architecture schools have been doing since long ago.

Rossana and Lyndon lately have been exploring the possibilities of doing research together with experts of different fields, trying to fill the existing gap between Chinese product design and material experience. In fact up until now most of Chinese designers that dealt with furniture or design mostly worked with wood, as there is an overall lacking of knowledge in industrial production. Rossana argued that one of the reasons why Chinese design has been lagging behind in the field of material research is directly bounded to the production system in China, where factories started from the beginning as OEM and were therefor not familiar with innovation thinking, and even less willing to take risks like investing in molds for new design prototypes.

Lyndon Neri and Rossana Hu

Lyndon Neri and Rossana Hu