“The twentieth century began with a futuristic utopia and ended with nostalgia,” wrote late Russian-American philosopher Svetlana Boym in her 2002 book The Future of Nostalgia. Today the topic of nostalgia is as relevant as ever. Ruins have become as essential as utopia used to be. Architects are increasingly flirting with history. Adaptive reuse projects are nothing new, but it was Rem Koolhaas’s Cronocaos exhibitions in Venice (2010) and New York (2011), and his consecutive projects, Fondazione Prada in Milan (2015) and Garage Museum of Contemporary Art in Moscow (2015) that gave the subject its theoretical grounding. Both his exhibitions and buildings explored the idea of preservation – either through conservation or reconstruction.
Coming from the world’s most visionary architect, these projects legitimised what some practitioners were already doing for years anyway and broadened architectural repertoire for those who tend to follow him whatever he does. Perhaps the real reason these ideas caught traction was the romantic notion of nostalgia itself. People respond well to materials that show their wear and beautiful patina. Yet, nostalgia is rarely talked about head on. So, when it became the central theme of my recent conversation with architects, Lyndon Neri and Rossana Hu, I realised more clearly that we no longer crave about the future, we are reliving the past. In fact, we can’t get enough of it. So much so that even new buildings celebrate the decay.
Lyndon Neri (b. 1965, Philippines) graduated from Harvard, and Rossana Hu (b. 1968, Taiwan) from Princeton; they met while pursuing their undergraduate degrees at the University of California at Berkeley. Before establishing Neri&Hu in 2004 in Shanghai, a prolific, multi-disciplinary practice with over 100 international architects and designers, the husband-and-wife partners worked for a decade at Michael Graves & Associates in Princeton. Among their most recognised works are The Waterhouse at South Bund in Shanghai, The Walled – Tsingpu Yangzhou Retreat, and Suzhou Chapel. Apart from running an architectural practice and design studio, the partners lead retail store Design Republic and serve as creative directors of a furniture brand, Stellar Works. The following is an excerpt from our conversation at their Shanghai office.
Vladimir Belogolovsky (VB): Could you comment on the name of your office – Neri&Hu? This seems to be quite unusual and bold here in China to give an architectural practice your own names. In a way, you are held accountable for what you do, right?
Rossana Hu (RH): It is true, but we also have a name of our practice in Chinese, which is made up of syllables of our names and it is not obvious. So, for the Chinese architects, if they don’t know our names, they may take it for an abstract name, similarly to other Chinese architects. It means graceful. So, it is more abstract and poetic.
Lyndon Neri (LN): I guess from a western point of view our firm’s name does stand out. In that regard, we are different. We never really think about it.
VB: It is hard to believe that the Chinese architects don’t think about it because it is obvious that they follow each other steps very closely to become successful. They go to particular schools. They choose to continue their education in leading American universities. They name their firms in a particular way, in English. They go after certain kind of projects in the countryside, and there is now focus on preserving the existing fabric. I am not criticising these choices, but if you look at the work of architects in America or elsewhere, you will not see such definitive patterns. There is greater diversity and focus on individual distinctions. Architects do not repeat each other so closely. Chinese architecture is a collective project. Of course, there are exceptions. Your practice is a glaring one.
LN: Interesting observation. It is hard to disagree with you.
VB: What would you say your work is about? What are the intentions of your architecture?
LN: We deal with a number of obsessions. In the first few years, it was more about personal obsessions and in the last five years, we became more interested in community-based obsessions. One of our obsessions is the notion of nostalgia. The fact that we both came out of Chinese diaspora has a lot to do with it. We had been unearthing this idea until we came across what is called ‘reflective nostalgia’, a concept articulated by Svetlana Boym. In the context of the rapid growth of China’s economy, it resonated for us and since then it has become one of our guiding principle. We treat historical buildings as urban artifacts and for us they are never just about the past. Another obsession for our work deals with what we call total design, the idea of being able to see each project from the point of view from different disciplines and perspectives. Apart from architecture we get involved with doing interiors, furniture design, product design and graphics. We find different ways of analysing projects and solving problems.
RH: Fundamentally, we are interested in the following issue – the identity and how do we represent it. Of course, we also need to respond to specifics of each projects’ programme. But whatever that is, the question remains – what is the architectural identity of a project? We rely not only on forms, material, colours and finishes, but also on our experience, and how it has been evolving. So, the first years for us were more about our personal journey together, but now we are more in search of representing China.
VB: What you are saying is reflecting a common shift for so many architects around the world – the move from having an individual identity to giving it up towards this idea of solving problems at hand. This pragmatism converges so many ideas into so few. In 2012, David Chipperfield asked all architects, “What is our common ground?” We hardly knew what he was talking about because common ground was the last thing we wanted. But now common ground is a reality – problem-solving and reconciling architecture with nature. In my view, 2012 was the peak of creativity for architects and look where we are now! The wings were cut. And what do architects do today – brick buildings, wood buildings, concrete buildings. Where are the ideas, dreams, metaphors? Look what happened to the iconic…
LN: I personally think this is healthy. Perhaps there are a few truly exceptional architectural talents that should be given the space to create but many of us are not in that category. So, hopefully, we can at least have the rigour to do good work. I think being grounded, being local, being contextual are not all bad. Problem arise when some architects put forward their individual identities for the sake of being different.
VB: Would you say your work is beautiful?
RH: I hope so. For us beauty is not the same as prettiness, though.
LN: Rem said, “Talk about beauty and you get boring answers, but talk about ugliness and things get interesting.” Beauty is subjective…
VB: Do you realise that this is the biggest misconception about beauty? Real beauty is universal. People react to it. Let me give an example. I talked to a number of architects here in China. As soon as we start talking about beauty they say, “Beauty? We are not interested. We work on solving issues – social, pragmatic, etc.” Then they give you a list of projects that need to be visited to see them in person. So, I go there and meet with people who give you a whole list of things that don’t work – this is too tight, that’s too awkward, that’s not practical, etc. Then they smile at you and say, “But this is so beautiful!” It is beauty that blinds everyone. It is beauty that saves architecture from being just a pile of crap.
LN: Interesting. But this is not how we work here. We don’t just do things that are practical. I can assure you of that.
RH: But nor do we do things that just look good. Of course, we bring our personal ideas to what we think is beautiful – whether by defining a thickness of a particular material, its colour, its shape. These are all very personal decisions. But this is when theory comes in. Designers use theory as a crutch; they find reasons or famous quotes to support their choices. And there are examples of famous projects that if you don’t know about theory or history behind them then they may not be perceived as beautiful.
Projects are accompanied by stories that help a lot. If the story is not told, the meaning and appreciation may be lost. There must be a clear idea and if it resonates, then details may vary. Apart from beauty we operate with ideas that are metaphoric, poetic, and again, nostalgic by referencing the past to move toward the future. We are looking for the poetic. There is a need for abstraction, to express the meaning without being obvious and literal. So, if we can bring poetry through space, light, form, and materials to a person who comes to our buildings then we will be happy.