by Zohra KhanMar 05, 2022
Neri&Hu Design and Research Office, founded by Lyndon Neri and Rossana Hu, has been successful in creating a valuable niche for itself, especially with its sensitive adaptive reuse practices. Its vast repertoire of architectural work has had a special proclivity towards finding potential in nondescript structures and transforming them into novel spaces. Naturally thus, when an opportunity to reutilise one such “artefact of urban excess” arose in Shanghai, No. 31, it also brought along the opportunity of a reformed and relocated residence for the N&H studios. The lure was quick, the draw mutual, and the result is a rebirthed building with a raw aesthetic, grunge even in its embellishments. “Instead of just discarding (it) for a newer, yet still unremarkable building as the previous tenant saw fit to do, we embraced instead the potential to transform it and give it a chance to not only survive, but thrive as a beacon for design,” states an official release on their tryst to adaptively reuse the site.
The said building was a four-storey concrete framed structure anchored in the busy Jing’an Temple area of the city, serving as offices and dormitories for a local telecom company. The entire process of adapting the existing structure to its new programme was peeled in layers, beginning with alterations to the main façade, in an effort to shift its proportions and perception without interfering with the visible columns and RCC structure in the elevation. A bare concrete shell was now to be adorned by filling in its large and repetitive fenestrations: the perfunctory windows were replaced by infilling the top portion of the opening, up till lintel level, with courses of glass bricks. Simultaneously, the lower portion comprises openable windows, strung together with a unifying black metal frame, creating the illusion of long horizontal ribbon windows running through the length of the façade on each floor.
The entire building sans the ground floor is covered in a dark grey coat, mirroring a shade of exposed concrete, while the ground floor receives a cladding treatment that spells opposites in both visual and tactile texture. The wall that anchors an ambulatory staircase at one end of the building, continuing unbroken before weaving in and out of the building footprint to signify access points, doubling up as fully glazed storefronts, is covered in glazed green tiles, emulating the sheen and hue of emerald. A deep canopy binds these undulations, accentuating the break in materiality as well as proving a welcoming threshold to the building. What the façade reformation without structural reformation essentially does is impart the building a warmer language as opposed to the previous, constrictive architectural language.
The second layer of the adaptive reuse process of the building was the structure: all existing concrete post and beam constructions, despite surface aberrations and irregularities, were left intact and exposed. A few selective core cuts were introduced in the slabs to facilitate double height spaces and a new internal staircase in the third and fourth floors occupied by Neri&Hu themselves. Working with the original structural grid, the open floor plan was then further subdivided into smaller spaces according to a new internal spatial programme that could satisfy the needs of a collaborative design studio. The project also shares a broader ambition for the design practice to build upon their notion of a “design commune”, one that they began with their Design Republic flagship store 10 years ago. The other tenants that occupy the new, revamped office complex include Artling, Luneurs Bakery, and furniture brands Stellar Works and Muuto, representing a microcosm of the creative community flourishing in Shanghai, and reflective of the kind of collective that Neri&Hu wish to foster. The existing staircase connecting all the floors of the building provides access to co-working and open kitchen facilities on the second floor, a multipurpose event space on the mezzanine between second and third floor, and a rooftop garden, harbouring a shared, communal feeling amongst the tenants of the building.
Despite a mixed occupancy, Neri&Hu’s signature aesthetic reigns supreme in the building, with the firm citing it as imperative given that the N&H collective, including Design Republic, occupy three floors of the four-storey structure. Numerous bespoke and particularly detailed design interventions within their new office space, including steel from glass partition mullions extending to form shelving, and the reception desk enveloping and integrating the structural column into its design, solidify the practice’s commitment to and understanding of an often overhyped principal in design: interdisciplinary and holistic in nature, covering the vast but overlapping arenas of architecture, interior design, product design, furniture, and even the graphic signage and visual design.