THE FUTURE OF NOSTALGIA
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THE FUTURE OF NOSTALGIA

Neri&Hu Design and Research Office

THE FUTURE OF NOSTALGIA
By Editorial Staff -

The Blue Bottle cafeteria designed in Shanghai by Neri&Hu Design and Research Office stands in the Zhang Yuan quarter, constructed in the 19th century in the typical style of the period that combines Western and Chinese elements. In this area that has been transformed into the first public commercial space of the city, there are still traditional working-class homes present, called shikumen. These homes were arranged to compose homogenous and compact blocks, surrounded by alleys and lanes. The Blue Bottle cafeteria was born from the redevelopment of one of these historic brick buildings – many of which house stores and showrooms today.   

Blue Bottle | © Zhu Runzi, courtesy Neri&Hu Design and Research Office

The project to rehabilitate and convert the structure saw the preservation of the original façades, while the interiors were redesigned to suit the building’s new function. The juxtaposition between old and new, which permeates the streets of Zhang Yuan, is reflected in the cafeteria space. Elements with an industrial flavor, like the exposed fixtures and concrete and brushed stainless steel surfaces complement the historic brick finish that also enters the interior of the building. Various traditional furnishings, salvaged and reused in the project, warm the environment introducing a sense of familiarity, together with the structure above the bar counter, which recalls the archetypical image of a hut. 

Blue Bottle | © Zhu Runzi, courtesy Neri&Hu Design and Research Office Al centro del locale, al di sopra del bancone bar, è stata inserita una grande struttura in acciaio a forma di capanna, che simboleggia il ritorno alle origini dell’architettura.

The theme of adaptive reuse, widely present in the work of Neri&Hu, is also prominent in the headquarters of the pastry brand Lao Ding Feng in Beijing, built within a former textile factory in the northeastern part of the Chinese capital. In this project, they opted to construct a new reinforced concrete structure within the existing brick one, following the logic of contained and containing, like a pastry enclosing cream.

Similarly, for the store of young clothing brand Ms MIN in Taikoo Li, one of the most well-known shopping destinations in Shanghai, Neri&Hu was inspired by the image of a fashion atelier. Their concept aims to create an artisan atmosphere within the store space, designed with a rich palette of materials including marble, brass, and linen. 

Blue Bottle | © Zhu Runzi, courtesy Neri&Hu Design and Research Office La caffetteria è tutta giocata sull’accostamento di elementi contemporanei, come le superfici in calcestruzzo e in acciaio, e storici, come le pareti in mattoni a vista, e sul dialogo tra un’atmosfera industriale, creata dagli impianti a vista, e una più familiare introdotta dagli arredi in legno.

In contrast, the project for the Red Plus agency, also located in Shanghai, in the former industrial compound of the Jing-an district, is characterized by an essential materiality. The project unearthed the reinforced concrete skeleton of the existing building – a former factory – to set up an office organized with a high level of flexibility, which recalls the idea of nomadism, in line with the type of work done by Red Plus in the fashion and media sector. Just like itinerant populations move from city to city offering specialized services, the agency needs to be able to transform their workspace depending on the scenario they are facing.

Blue Bottle | © Zhu Runzi, courtesy Neri&Hu Design and Research Office Le facciate storiche dell’edificio, in precedenza un’abitazione in stile Shikumen, sono state mantenute nel loro aspetto originario, con i muri in laterizio e le finestre in legno.

In retail and office projects, the theme of old & new is intertwined with the representation of the company’s identity. Moving to the hospitality sphere, the genius loci plays a starring role. In the rooms of the Sanya Wellness Retreat, a hotel located on the Haitang Bay on Hainan Island, guests can breathe in the history, culture, and nature of this island on the South China Sea. Inspired by the image of an ancient Chinese city enclosed by walls, the resort consists of a masonry base, which houses the common areas, topped by a wooden volume, destined to host the rooms.

This reflection on local history features strongly in the design for Nantou City Guesthouse, an 11-room guesthouse located in the heart of the megacity of Shenzhen, within a settlement whose origins date back to pre-industrial times, now incorporated into the urban fabric. The interior design of the structure takes inspiration from the scenes of everyday life: people, objects of daily use, and their settings. This creative approach embraces the concept of “reflective nostalgia”, theorized by Russian writer and artist Svetlana Boym in her book The Future of Nostalgia, expressed in its full meaning throughout the work of Lyndon Neri and Rossana Hu. 

 

INTERVIEW

 

REDEFINING THE CONCEPT OF ARCHITECTURE
“WE ARE BRINGING CHINA TO THE WORLD”

Lyndon Neri and Rossana Hu
Founders Neri&Hu Design and Research Office

From the era of foreign concessions – territories ceded by the Chinese Empire to other countries mainly between the mid-19th and early 20th centuries – to the modernization of the 1970s, which led to the so-called “Chinese miracle”: in the last half century of its history spanning millennia, in a constant dualism between industrialization and ruralism, China has seen unprecedented economic growth, with connected upheavals at the social, demographic, and cultural levels, and last but not least, in urban planning and architecture. All of this is captured, together with an outlook of hope and enthusiasm towards the future and younger generations, in the work of Lyndon Neri and Rossana Hu, who together founded the Shanghai-based studio Neri&Hu Design and Research Office in 2006. 

Partners at work and in life, they both graduated from UC Berkeley, after which Lyndon received a master’s from Harvard, and Rossana from Princeton. Award-winning architects and professors at prestigious universities, they move along the double tracks of design and teaching as well as internationalism and the valorization of China’s significant heritage, and thus decided to base themselves in Shanghai, a global frontier of contemporaneity in contact with historical legacies. 

Neri&Hu’s approach to architecture and design is based on the concept of “research”: the search for an ever-new interaction between materials, shape, and light, while taking into account the characteristics of the site; the search for a dialogue between past, present, and future; the search for a balance between function and esthetics; and research at different scales, from urban to product. This research aims to break down the barriers between the disciplines that revolve around architecture, breaking the mold and avoiding following pre-established formulas, to define a new paradigm. 

 

Many of Neri&Hu’s projects investigate the relationship between Shanghai’s history and tradition on one hand and the contemporary urban and social context on the other. Among your most recent works is the Blue Bottle cafeteria: what aspects of the project contribute to this narrative?
The original appearance of the street front of the building has been maintained, as has the façade facing the side alley. The historic brick wall extends into the interior of the cafe, weaving together with the existing doors and windows, the street, the alley, and the interface with the store space to create a continuous canvas. We were also inspired by the simple expedients with which it was once customary to extend the private realm of the home outwards into the alley. We inserted metal hoops around the pillars that support the shelves deputized to perform various functions: small tables, rails for lighting fixtures, and benches for seating. 

As one of the first public commercial space in modern China, the Zhang Yuan area has promoted the birth of a new style of urban life in the country and the formation of a unique Shanghai culture. In the Blue Bottle cafeteria, we wanted to weave tradition and trendiness, East and West, and sophistication and market needs.

We hope that visitors can feel the memories of the past from this place where the old meets the new. When the gaze stops at the gabled structure in the center of the space, time seems to slow down and even go back. Strolling through it, guests can perceive the leisure time of Shanghai from the past and imagine the possibilities of the future.

 

“Reflective nostalgia” is a recurrent topic in your work (as well as the title of Neri&Hu’s solo exhibition held at Aedes Architecture Forum in fall 2022). How do you develop this concept in your projects?
“Reflective nostalgia” has always been one of the themes that we explore in our practice. Many of our projects are based on the premise that nostalgia, rather than being regressive, represents a productive means to address issues of heritage, collective memory, migration, and urban regeneration. Whereas “restorative nostalgia” attempts a transhistorical reconstruction of the lost home, “reflective nostalgia” dwells on the ambivalences of human longing and belonging, without shying away from the contradictions of modernity. 

As a type of intervention, the renovations of existing buildings share similar strategies: material contrast, differentiation of volumes, juxtapositions on the formal level, and the precise and thoughtful insertion of new elements. However, each project comes with own set of unique issues related to how one deals with foreign concessions-era heritage, from the topic of commercialization of faux historical relics to the role of representation in the dialectic between past and present. All of this is just as relevant today as it was 18 years ago when we started the practice. Even back then, these were the issues and situations that we had to deal with.  

 

Twenty years ago, you founded together Design Republic, a retail concept store based in Shanghai that also hosts design and cultural exhibitions. You have also held lectures and seminars across the world in various universities and professional forums. What does your commitment to education bring to your professional activity and vice versa?
Design Republic is not just a concept store; it is a platform for the global design community. The reason why we founded Design Republic was because we felt at that time the need to raise awareness of the importance of design within society as a whole. It is a place where industrial design excellence can be displayed, sold, appreciated, discussed, and learned, all with the objective of gathering the world’s best products in a single place and bringing the best of China to the world in the long run. Since 2016, every year we have hosted the Festival of Design, an interdisciplinary forum during which globally known designers are invited to give talks and organize a month-long exhibition. 

For the past seven years, we have been involved in education at Harvard and Yale, committed to share our experiences with younger generations. Teaching and research are integral to our research, creation, and building activities. As of this year, Rossana holds the Chair of Architecture at the University of Pennsylvania, while Lyndon will teach at Princeton. We like to think of our practice as another learning context.

 

How do your respective personalities come together in your daily work and how do your talents combine in Neri&Hu’s projects?
We work as a team, and naturally there are many components that come into play when we work on a project together. Most things are shared, and we work very organically depending on time, availability, and interest. We have different strengths and compensate for each other’s weaknesses. Lyndon is very skilled in the concept stage and works very well with drawing. Rossana is better at the development stage and expresses herself better through words and thoughts. Our esthetic senses are very similar, so we usually share the same overall vision. For each project, we always start with a basic idea and conduct research in various directions to find traces and signs that inspire a suitable form to realize that idea. 

 

Neri&Hu Design and Research Office was founded 18 years ago in Shanghai. How has the studio evolved and how has the city changed from since then? What plans do you have for the coming years?
​​​​​​​When we started our practice, we felt mis- and underrepresented by the Chinese creative community, but in more recent times we have been impressed and encouraged by our compatriot architects, interior designers, and product designers. China is experiencing an unprecedented explosion of creative energy, on all fronts, and it is exciting to be a part of it. 

We cannot wait for our 20th birthday. It is hard to say what will happen after that; however, we want to continue with what we are doing now. We will continue to redefine what architecture means, both as architects and professors.

 

Location: Shanghai, China
Client: Blue Bottle Coffee
Completion: 2022
Gross Floor Area: 175 m2
Architect and Interior Designer: Neri&Hu Design and Research Office
Partners in Charge: Rossana Hu, Lyndon Neri
FF&E Design and Procurement: Design Republic
Main Contractor: Blue Peak Image Producing

Photography: Zhu Runzi, courtesy of Neri&Hu Design and Research Office

Photography courtesy of Neri&Hu Design and Research Office

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