A&D Talk with Neri & Hu
24 Hours in Shanghai
An exclusive conversation with Tom Dixon and Lyndon Neri, renowned architect and founding partner of leading inter-disciplinary architectural design practice, Neri & Hu.
They discuss design and sustainability in Shanghai, followed by live product presentation by Tom.
Neri & Hu projects include The Void (Aranya Art Center), Sculpted Light (New Shanghai Theatre) and The Urban Oasis (Aliala Bangsar).
Tom Dixon: So, Lyndon?
Lyndon Neri: Yes, Tom!
TD: So nice to see you again! You know what we’re doing here? We’re doing 24 Hours in Shanghai, but we’re having to do it digitally because obviously we can’t travel. Such a shame not to be there, but 24 Hours is really about connecting with our old friends and finding new ones as well –
TD: - but you’re our oldest friend in Shanghai, right? So, you’re a number one dealer of Tom Dixon -
LN: That’s correct.
TD: – and we’ll be eternally grateful for thar launch into the Chinese market, right, but tell me are you still doing Design Republic and the store?
LN: Of course! We continue to do that. That’s important because I think it’s imperative to bring design consciousness to – not just to the city, but the country as a whole and I think our mantra has always been, from the very get go when we brought you in and all the other brands that people we not familiarised with - or not familiar with - to sort of bring this sort of rigour band intensity and so we continue to do that with old friends like you and old brands like you. Now you guys are an institution. You were an upstart then, but now you are, of course a, you know, a big brand, but we need to continue to do both and balance it, so it’s been exciting and I think Design Republic is probably going through a different phase as well in which we’re trying to go into the hotel sector and the real estate sector.
TD: So, I’m kind of interested in the evolution of businesses just generally, and um – because you landed from another planet, you know, from the States, right?
TD: Working in quite big architectural offices, to start your own thing in Shanghai. I mean we’re talking about, what, fifteen years ago? Is that right?
LN: Six – seventeen years ago.
TD: Seventeen years ago, and I was just wondering, you know, when you were dreaming about your own thing in the States and looking at China as this, kind of, amazing series of opportunities: did you think it would end up like it is now or did you have a different vision?
LN: I never really dreamed of having my own practise, Tom, to be honest with you and when I was in the US, I was very happy. I worked for Michael Graves. It was – even though it was a very large practise, it was rather boutique in its approach, so I was quite content. I was happy, we had good clients, I had three very young kids, so that was never my plan, but what happened was: I came here for a project called ‘Three on the Bund. I think you’re familiar with that, that Michael Graves had designed, and I was the Associate in charge for that project and that was the time when we came here initially. It was supposed to be only for ten weeks. Right before ten weeks was over, SARS came. This was before COVID. That first sort of, you know, crazy pandemic and I could not fly back and I had my three kids – the youngest was literally two months old and I had no choice but to stay, so that ten weeks and the client really enjoyed me being here because decisions were being made rather - you know, I mean at that speed we had to make decisions fast and so that dragged on and it went from ten weeks to six months, six months to nine months, nine months to a year and the project completed and by then I saw the energy – saw the energy behind the scenes that you would never normally see just coming and visiting for a week and I was shocked at how many people were making things, you know, from phones to all the gadgets that you see, to furniture to some of our contemporaries that refuse to admit that they’re all made in China during that time. I saw first-hand how they were made here and that was exhilarating.
TD: Right, and, you know, obviously I’ve not been to China for more than a year now and Shanghai, you know, it’s a cliché, but it’s constantly mutating at a speed that I think people in the west don’t really comprehend. What’s been happening? What’s the current situation? I mean, obviously for us here in Europe we’re still in the middle of the pandemic. Fascinating to hear that your history is topped and tailed by pandemics, right? Your business is actually thanks to an earlier pandemic, but you’ve come out of COVID obviously much earlier than us. What is the current state of Shanghai in terms of just energy?
LN: Absolutely – I would say absolutely insane. There is this energy – a lot of people can’t go out. They can’t travel and you know that the travel industry was heavily reliant on Chinese tourists, especially in Europe and the US, and so you can kind of see the pent up need for people who want to travel, so naturally there is a growth in the hospitality sector because now people can’t go to Europe, so they travel within China. They can’t buy things, so all of a sudden the products people who have decided to stay on and leave their products in China are – The Louis Vuittons of this world and the Guccis of this world are making a killing here because it used to be stores in Hong Kong and stores in Paris because when people travel they would naturally buy and now they can’t travel they will just buy locally and, you know, we used to have this notion that if you buy European products in Shanghai it’s more expensive, but that’s not the case anymore. They have no choice, they can’t travel. I mean you can still travel, but you would be quarantined when you come back.
TD: No, we don’t want that, so, I mean, what interests me in that conversation is more whether there’s a kind of – more of a want to investigate Chinese brands. You’re still talking a lot about Gucci, Louis Vuitton and, you know –
TD: - there must be by now a kind of an identity – a Chinese identity emerging in luxury goods and in interiors which, you know, for a long time things seemed to be quite referential to the west, but the culture in China is so deep and so wide in terms of references. Are people turning towards a slightly more Asian aesthetic?
LN: Er, definitely. I think, um, not just Fashion – you can kind of see even within the Fashion there’s a lot of Chinese brands, Chinese designers. There is also the furniture industry. They’re actually growing rapidly. A lot of people are, um – if you saw the fairs – not just Design Shanghai, but also the new fair coming, you know, Shanghai Furniture Fair – it’s filled with local brands and, to my surprise, some of them are actually quite good. Lighting brands, there’s NIO that competes with Tesla and there’re a number of brands and apps that all are quite Chinese based and Chinese centric.
TD: And from an architectural point of view do you think you’re defining a new kind of Asian aesthetic, or you’re doing something which is really, kind international style? I mean the skyline of Shanghai is kind of, you know, futuristic and sort of, Blade Runner in my imagination, but the rate of change means also that you’ve lost a lot of, I guess, historic buildings, but is there new Chinese aesthetic evolving?
LN: I think by virtue of how we practise, Tom, we hardly – I mean don’t have a high rise for instance and that’s not our forte and probably not our interest because I feel like there’s a lot of other problems within the city and the urban fabric, so if you look at Urban Renewal, Adaptive Reuse – buildings, instead of being torn down, looking at buildings that are empty and how do we – as Aldo Rossi would say: “How do we reconfigure the typology” and make it alive again rather than just constantly destroying and constantly creating something new? So, by virtue of the things we do and the need of this particular sector in terms of Adaptive Reuse, in terms of Urban Renewal, in terms of dealing with old and new I think, by virtue of doing that, there is a natural societal aesthetic. You can call it ‘Chinese aesthetic’, but I think – if you look at New York for instance, you can call that – are the high rises a ‘New York thing’, or is that an ‘Urban condition’ relevant to that particular period, so I think this particular period will lend itself a certain group, architects and projects that they make – that they create out of the necessity and the need of the society. So, you can call it ‘Chinese aesthetic’ – I think it’s a sign of our times.
TD: Well yeah, but I think also there’s a kind of philosophical approach which is distinct and different, which, I mean, you know is probably slightly more evident in places like Japan where there’s been a kind of unbroken, you know, and quite insular preservation of tradition, right? Whereas China’s gone through a series of quite, you know, shocking changes and wars and all of that, so, but underpinning a lot of Asian design is a series of philosophies and, you know, I’ve always come up against, you know, clients in China particularly talking a lot about Feng Shui for instance. Is that something that you’re kind of conscious of, either yourself or from a client perspective where very ancient rules about how you do things actually do still have an influence in the modern world?
LN: Of course! I think, by virtue of dealing with some of the clients – some of them are superstitious - I mean, I think there is some relevance to Feng Shui. It is, you know, wind and water – there is relevance to that, but oftentimes people kind of skew it to their own interest. There are a lot of so called ‘Feng Shui Masters’ that charge up an arm and a leg with a telescopic, sort of, bronze plated, you know, accoutrements that start looking at the corner and says “That’s bad for the wind, that’s bad for the water” which are obviously is a hoax in itself, so we have to decide what’s good and bad, but yes there’re a number of ideologies – the notion of layering for instance, the notion of going from one room to another. When you look at Japan actually, the idea of preservation is actually similar to China. You know, if you look at Venice the idea of replication is exactly the same. You have to replicate every single brick, every dimension, every graph. If you look at a lot of the Japanese historical buildings, some of them are demolished and burned down. What they do is they try to understand the essence and the proportion of the space. They don’t necessarily copy it directly and I think the Chinese also have this lineage and thinking and I think these things are coming back in a big way.
TD: Have you got any tips for me then?
LN: I’m sorry?
TD: Have you got any tips?
LN: That’s right, so, but –
TD: You need also to – I mean, for once, just tell me finally how to pronounce ‘Feng Shui’.
TD: How do you pronounce it?
LN: Feng Shui. It’s – I think you pronounce it quite –
LN: - quite okay, mhm.
TD: Excellent. Good, good, and is there anything I need to understand about how to design in, like, for instance for my shop: what’s a tip for me? Rounded corners?
LN: No, I think – I think just be you. I think people like authenticity. I think Tom Dixon being Tom Dixon is more important than Tom Dixon trying to be something else that’s he’s not and I think Chinese can tell authenticity, um, and if you try to be something that you’re not. I think you are a British brand – you are a brand that deals with industrialisation. I think, you know, celebrate that, and I think you’ll do well.
TD: Yeah, I mean, you know just like I do that we’ve had huge amounts of problems with copies in China and that thing of, um, trying to tell the story of the product so that people understand the distinction between the original and the versions that you see so much in the market. I mean we, collectively, you and I, had a lot of difficulty I think, in selling things which were, you know, five or six times the price for something that might look very similar. Do you think that something that people really do seek out now is the original?
LN: I think there’s a group of people that are going for the original. Slowly, you can kind of see from the reflection on the customer base for Design Republic things have changed dramatically and you can see a group of people and obviously, economically, when the country and the city is better and stronger, naturally there’s really no time to be doing things that are not necessarily that much cheaper. But China – China is also a country – China is really big and you go from Beijing to Shanghai, to Chengdu, to Chongqing – they’re all very different where people tend to kind of clump China as one, but there’s actually a lot of different variations even within the country. I mean, if you think of the US, you’ll understand that, or if you think of Europe as a whole. I think China is rather large and there’s different nuances, but definitely the extremes happen in this country, so you would see – I have not carried a wallet for a year now, Tom. All I do is use my phone and my app. I could go anywhere. I charge my phone bills, my Uber rides – they call it DiDi here – to my plane tickets, my restaurants, so in that sense it’s very advanced. I mean, I was driving to Hangzhou the other day and I was shocked that the person next door – or person next to me that was driving – he literally was sleeping on his Tesla and the Tesla was self-driving. I mean that’s absolutely insane. I don’t know if that’s legal actually in Shanghai, you know, but that was happening and this was in the city, and so you have extreme cases. If you look at Comme des Garcons or even Seiki which in many ways is an offshoot of Comme des Garcons, people are actually wearing them. In the west people might actually buy the t-shirt and the Converse version with a heart and the t-shirt with a heart and that’s the extent. You know if you come to the Shanghai street you actually see people wearing big flower blouses, you know, hats with big marking that’s just absolutely – so the sense of the daringness to experiment and to go all out in it’s extreme sense is really prevalent.
TD: Disappointed that you’re not wearing a big flowery blouse.
LN: I do, I do! I can’t show you the details, but it’s actually quite nice, you know I have my subtlety.
LN: But of course –
TD: What fascinated me also about your practise is, you know, is the breadth of your, kind of, interests. I think really that’s where we have a real connection and a link where, you know, you’re not just somebody who’s doing interiors, or somebody who’s building buildings. You’ve got these interests also in the micro, which is, you know, for me obviously the work in furniture, but also you extend your interests into food, just like we do here, right? So what’s your latest, kind of, food adventures that you’re doing over there?
LN: Actually we’re experimenting on trying to figure out a new way of looking at Chinese – what is Chinese bistro? The notion of ‘What is Chinese Tapas?’ for instance, and so that’s been quite interesting. I think oftentimes as architects when we’re in school we’re taught to think creatively and then when we go to practise, we start to divide our chores, you know? People – you do restaurant design, you do hotel design, you do only tall towers, you only do marketing or do branding. I think that’s unfortunate because I think we’re limiting ourselves and our own profession and we have ourselves to blame.
TD: Yeah, and is there something else you’re doing which is a bit more secret, or underground that I don’t know about. Obviously, I’ve been to your restaurants -
LN: Well, yeah if it’s a secret I can’t tell you. No, we’re completing – we’re completing a project. We won this competition for a project for Pernod Ricard. It’s a first wine distillery and they’re doing a first Chinese distillery. A Chinese whiskey –
LN: In the middle of China in Meishan so it’s this beautiful scenic thing, so we’re doing – obviously we did the master planning, we did the architecture, we did the interiors, we’re also doing the labelling and we’re designing the bottles, so that’s been quite exciting so that’s gonna – The first phase is gonna open in a month and a half, so we’re very excited, but we’re also exploring different ideas on, sort of, the notion of what hospitality is and the idea of ‘What is Chinese hospitality?’.
TD: Oh, I can’t wait for that. How soon will that be ready because by then I’ll be able to travel.
LN: Yes, we’re starting on that. I think we’re trying to see the understanding, the sensibility of dealing with this particular typology and coming up with something interesting.
TD: Well tell me more! How do you define Chinese hospitality as distinct from, say, European?
LN: It is not so distinct. It is the idea of, you know – there’s this term called ‘Kurzon’ which means ‘People who used to go in and have stops’ – different stops. Instead of purely staying they have little stops to refill themselves and so we start thinking to ourselves: Are there options in which you can come in and only rent part of a hotel? Is it just a bed? Is it just a restroom? Is it just a shower area? And sort of try to break the whole convention of the room and break it up a little bit more and so we’ve been exploring this idea with a group of people and also with a group of hoteliers that are starting to think outside the box and there are real needs because, you know, people sometimes will just want to sleep. There are a lot of public toilets and just – or vice versa, they might just need to shower and not necessarily sleep.
TD: Okay. Amazing. Deconstructed hospitality – that’s fantastic.
TD: And when do you think you’ll be able to travel again commercially? When are you coming to London?
LN: I don’t know. I don’t know. I think it’s been a great year that I have every reason to just kind of rest and actually focus on the practise. Focus on all things that we’re doing here. Um – maybe, obviously this fall I’m committed to teach at The Graduate School of Design at Harvard, so I have to go back, so it’s either online or actually in person. That I’m not sure yet, but definitely I’m slated to be at Yale for next spring so for that I have to travel. I have no choice.
TD: Okay, well yeah – that doesn’t really take you through London, so I guess I’m gonna have to come to Shanghai to see you.
LN: I’d love to come to London. Every excuse to try – to try Isaac Mchale’s new restaurant or your restaurant or Barrafina. All these places I need to go.
TD: Okay, well look, we’ll make a date. I guess for – yeah – in six months maybe, but in the meantime, Lyndon, thanks a lot for once more getting on to Zoom. You must be sick to death of the screen if you’re teaching as well doing the digital medium. Can’t wait to see you in person. Say hi to Rosanna, right and the kids!
LN: I will!