Neri&Hu Design and Research Office - Blue Bottle Zhang Yuan Cafe: the concept of “primitive dwelling”
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Blue Bottle Zhang Yuan Cafe: the concept of “primitive dwelling”

Neri&Hu Design and Research Office

Interior  /  Completed
Neri&Hu Design and Research Office

Amidst the architectural relics of Zhang Yuan, Neri&Hu was commissioned to create a café retail space in one of the old Shikumen typology residences. Within this vast network of alleys, people would go about in their daily hustle and bustle, but the Shanghainese could always appreciate a moment of leisure. Neri&Hu hopes to capture the spirit of the local urban fabric and weave a narrative journey for both locals and visitors to appreciate. Coffee initiates a dialogue between Shanghai’s rich history and the contemporary urban social realm. "Reflective Nostalgia" has always been one of our design obsessions. As a genre, these renovation efforts share similar strategies – material contrast, tectonic differentiation, formal assemblage and surgical grafting.

For us, the most important thing about design is precisely the unique meaning of each project and the problems that need to be solved behind it. In this project, how one engages Shanghai’s tumultuous concession-era heritage, resistance to the commercialization of faux historical relics, and the role of representation in the dialectics between past and present. For example, the concept of “primitive dwelling” is a kind of retrospective to the archetype of architecture, whose structure and structure have been refined several times to a very clear and concise state, corresponding to our abstract practice of the symbol of the house. The rest of the space retains the green bricks and carved vermilion windows of the old house that people remember.

Zhang Yuan began as a farmland and a private residence was transformed at the end of the 19th century into one of the earliest public and commercial spaces in modern China, exemplifying and leading the emergence of a new Chinese urban lifestyle. As the city grew in population in the mid-century, these houses were further subdivided into smaller units, forming what we know today as the archetypal Shikumen lifestyle—home to a crowded but vibrant community life. In 2022, as Zhang Yuan reopens to the public after a complete rehabilitation of its historic buildings. The existing brick walls, doors, and windows of the original architectural façades and atriums are left untouched, and become a continuous backdrop for the insertion of new design elements.

A primitive shelter, symbolizing a return to the origin of architecture, is erected in the center of the space; it is where the coffee is prepared and served, and forms the visual and circulatory focal point of the project. Along the exterior wall of the old building, an elongated space connects the main street to the atriums. This alley-like space within the building accommodates several benches and small tables against the windows and walls, a nod to the leisurely social moments of life in the Shikumen. To contrast with the heavy palette of the existing architecture, Neri&Hu meticulously studied the structure and its tectonic joinery, to make it as light as possible. The roof structure is built with brushed stainless steel while the roof surface is made of perforated and bent steel, materials that reflect the surroundings in a subtle and fuzzy manner. Neri&Hu was also inspired by the informal construction and simple attachments that people once used to extend their private spaces into the alley, the existing structural columns are thus commandeered with added metal rods and small platforms to function as light rails, side tables, benches, and object displays. Other than brand furniture, the project features a selection of repurposed traditional old furniture, on which the traces of time bestow a sense of warmth and familiarity, merging old and new, Blue Bottle and Shanghai.

Like many other lane complexes, Zhang Yuan exists because it symbolizes slices of urban life, which define and reflect the essence of Shanghai's urban life, past and present. Blue Bottle and Neri&Hu hope to weave together tradition and trendiness, East and West, sophistication and market.


 Blue Bottle Coffee
 175 mq
 Neri&Hu Design and Research Office
 Partners-in-charge: Lyndon Neri, Rossana Hu; Associate-in-charge: Qiucheng Li; Design team: Jiaxin Zhang, Xi Chen, Peizheng Zou, Shangyun Zhou, Greg Wu, Luna Hong
 Blue Peak Image Producing Co.,Ltd
 Zhu Runzi


Founded in 2004 by partners Lyndon Neri and Rossana Hu, Neri&Hu Design and Research Office is an inter-disciplinary architectural design practice based in Shanghai. The practice’s burgeoning global portfolio includes commissions ranging from master planning and architecture, to interior design, installation, furniture, product, branding and graphic works. Currently working on projects in many countries, Neri&Hu is composed of multi-cultural staff who speak over 30 different languages. The diversity of the team reinforces a core vision for the practice: to respond to a global worldview incorporating overlapping design disciplines for a new paradigm in architecture.

Neri&Hu’s location is purposeful. With Shanghai considered a new global frontier, Neri&Hu is in the immediate center of this contemporary chaos. The city’s cultural, urban, and historic contexts function as a point of departure for design inquiries that span across a wide spectrum of scales.

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