CLAD interview

Lyndon Neri

Neri & Hu’s co-founder on hospitality design and changing attitudes in China


How would you sum up Neri & Hu’s philosophy?
We’re interested in being subversive and always questioning things. We deal with the notion of blurring the public and the private, the old and new. We’re constantly challenging the refined and the rough. People need these contrasts to understand and appreciate differences in society.

What are your thoughts on hotel design?
The problem with hotels today is that guests just go into their rooms and close the door. They ask if the light is okay, if the stationery is nice. They crave comfort; there’s no sense of questioning what’s there. It’s all about providing luxury in a decorative way – better wall coverings, a beautiful chair. Those are good, but they’re not enough.

We like to question what’s taken for granted. I often wonder whether the privacy of the hotel bedroom should be truly respected, for example. Could the room be open, so that natural light can filter down from above and hotel guests don’t always have to turn on the light when they are in their rooms?

Hoteliers will tell you that hotel bedrooms need to be totally blacked out. Nowadays, with blackout curtains, we sometimes don’t wake up until 11am; then at night we can’t sleep so we take sleeping pills. We are becoming abnormal beings.

I also think that maybe our notion of personal space should be challenged. We’re trained to think that we need to be separate. For example, when we come home from work, we close our front doors, we make sure we have our privacy. But I think that we need to feel like we’re part of a community. I think sometimes that this celebration of isolation makes us insular – and I think that’s dangerous.

How would you sum up the architectural scene in China?
There’s a growing seriousness. Younger generations are leaving the country earlier. Some parents send their children to prep school abroad because they understand that for China to be a significant player, their children have to be engaged with the world and learn the language and culture.

Simplicity is no longer seen as a bad thing in China. Preserving the old and trying to understand context are no longer seen as negative. It’s not just about building bigger, shinier buildings. Another change is people aren’t just interested in the city now; a lot of people are going back to the provinces.

Le Meridien hotel in Zhengzhou was a major project for you. How did that come about?
We were asked to do the interiors for a building that was, in my opinion, commercial looking and hideous. I respectfully said: ‘If you want us to do that, we’re not the architects for you’.
The client was shocked. He had already poured the foundation. I said, fine, we won’t change the structural formation or the floor area ratio, but allow us to change the way it is seen. The building was so nondescript, it could have been anywhere. We wanted to design something modern but contextual.

We were inspired by the idea of the mountains and the cave people of Zhenzhou. The design of the building features a series of glass boxes; the idea is that they are archival boxes that contain the history of the area. The atrium was inspired by the historic Longmen Caves nearby. We wanted to reflect that history, and that’s how the large, cave-like atrium came about.

Can you tell us about the hotels you are designing for Ian Schrager?
We’re working on three projects for Ian Schrager in China – Edition hotels in Shanghai, Wuhan and Xiamen.

The Shanghai hotel will celebrate the city’s Art Deco history. It’s in a property of that period; Schrager wants to refurbish the building and make sure that the decadence and the play of material will be glorified.

What else are you working on?
We’re working on a Louis Vuitton hotel in Miami’s Design District, Florida. It’s an interesting project because it celebrates the home and questions the notion of domesticity. Each of the rooms is like a little house inserted into the shell of the building.

We’re designing a beautiful 19 room resort in the mountains of Moganshan, not far from Shanghai. We’re also designing a six room villa resort in the mountains of Wenzhou. We’re building the architecture and space out of the local river rocks. We’re working with Alila on the brand’s first city hotel, in Malaysia. And we’re designing a hotel in Shanghai for Thai brand Sukhothai.

What will the next 10 years bring for Neri & Hu?
We’ve been concentrating on designing buildings in the city for a long time, but now people are approaching us to do projects outside the city. We’re exhilarated by this. We currently have five or six projects in the villages or in the mountains.

We’re also international. People are approaching us to do projects in Europe, and we now have a London office. We’re very excited and positive about the future.

Lyndon Neri was interviewed by Magali Robathan. Read the full article in CLADmag issue 2 2017

Selected Projects

New Shanghai Theatre
Completed in November 2016, this project saw Neri & Hu revive an old 1930s Shanghai theatre with bronze and stone details. Neri & Hu sought to restore the original character and grandeur, which had been stripped away by a series of insensitive renovations

Le Meridien Zhengzhou
For this project, Neri & Hu came up with the concept of the building as an ‘archive’ of new and old objects for travellers to discover. Each of the cantilevered stacked boxes that make up the exterior represents an archive, with local history and culture represented internally by artworks, the materials used and the layout of the spaces

Chi-Q, Shanghai
Owned by chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten, the Chi-Q Korean restaurant is in Shanghai’s historic Three on the Bund building. Neri & Hu were responsible for the interiors and used dark colours, charcoal wood slats and dramatic lighting. The atrium houses a communal dining table, with other diners eating in half sunken seating banquettes

The Hub Performance and Exhibition Centre, Shanghai
Completed in 2015, the Performance and Exhibition Centre is part of The Hub mixed-use complex in Shanghai. It was designed by architect Ben Wood, with Neri & Hu responsible for the interiors. The design was influenced by natural landscapes, particularly forest canopies and rock formations

Xi’an Westin Museum Hotel
In China’s ancient capital, Neri & Hu designed a 300-bedroom hotel for Westin that is modern, but references the historic architecture of the area. The exterior is clad in dark stucco and stone; inside wooden slatted canopies allow light into the interiors

The Waterhouse, Shanghai
The Waterhouse is a four-storey boutique hotel built into a Japanese army headquarters building from the 1930s in Shanghai’s South Bund district. The lobby features the original concrete and brickwork, creating a ‘rough and raw’ feel

The Hub Performance Centre, Shanghai
The Hub Performance Centre, Shanghai
New Shanghai Theatre, Shanghai
New Shanghai Theatre, Shanghai
Chi-Q restaurant at Three on the Bund, Shanghai
Chi-Q restaurant at Three on the Bund, Shanghai
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