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Interview with Lyndon Neri:
“We want to bring back the Renaissance.”


Lyndon Neri and Rossana Hu, the founders of Neri&Hu Design and Research Office in Shanghai, are designing the 2015 edition of the ‘Das Haus – Interiors on Stage’, the living space at imm cologne, the international interiors show in Cologne. Lyndon Neri explains the idea behind the design entitled ‘Memory Lane’. His lucid stance makes it clear why Neri&Hu meanwhile rank both in Shanghai and worldwide among the most interesting and multi-faceted architects who know how to combine design and architecture and the old and new in a useful way.

Lyndon, your design for the ‘Das Haus’ living space installation at the next imm cologne looks completely different from the three previous houses. You yourself speak of a metal frame that integrates the cage-like containers for our furniture and rituals of living. What’s behind that?
We want to question the understanding of home and of being at home and to convey to visitors another perspective by letting them experience ‘Das Haus’ on partly predetermined paths and with limited sight lines – like a museum of the rituals of living. We want to provoke the question of how much do our houses represent a refuge and how much are they a cage.

In the sense of a prison for the residents or a museum-like repository?
Both. We think on the one hand that too many pieces of furniture today are treated as design objects rather than as an article for daily use. This also raises the question whether our furniture really has to be kept for a lifetime? Who is serving whom here? On the other hand, we’re asking about the true nature of domesticity, whether it is in the form of eating habits or of furniture.

Isn’t that a philosophical question?
It’s a way of examining our own point of view. Take a bird in its cage: it’s protected, it’s covered with a cloth in the evening, it’s fed, it sings songs that its master has taught it and it is one thing above all: beautiful. Is it therefore free? Or is the pigeon free on St. Mark’s Square in Venice, which can still be stepped on by pedestrians or go hungry? Some people prefer a house with a view of a rural idyllic landscape – are they really therefore caught in their own world, or is it the others who have to come to terms with the chaotic urban life and argue that “they don’t know it, the true life”.

How can such a thing be displayed?
We’ve planned a two-storey structure in which not only interiors are displayed but also in which a curated path through ‘das Haus’ can be taken. A complex play of rooms thereby results within the pattern set by us. Visitors can experience the cages now from the outside and then from the inside without having planned on doing so.

You are also the first architects to design ‘Das Haus’ – up to now only designers have been in the ranks of the guests of honour. How does this assignment influence your work as a designer and architect?
Everything that we do has a room-related component – our furniture as well. We want to continue on this path. In this respect, ‘Das Haus’ is a very interesting project. It is forcing me to think ahead.

Why in your opinion was the tradition of designer-architects, which is now gradually flourishing again – begun by Le Corbusier or Adolf Loos up to Arne Jacobsen – interrupted for so long?
I think that the architects at that time in America, where most of the new projects occurred due to economic growth, lost control over their projects and with it their influence. Everything became larger and larger and had to move faster and faster – similar to today in China. More and more assignments were handed over to them: designing the interiors, textiles and furniture. The result was a world of specialists. We face exactly that today whenever we have a meeting in America with a client: there is a specialist for windows, for wood, for everything. That leads to no one wanting to take the first step, according to the motto: you draw up something first, then we’ll also produce a design. That can drive you crazy. We’re therefore preaching in China: we want to bring back the Renaissance.

But wasn’t there also a real need for specialisation? The architectural firms that have become large can in fact get involved with integrated projects today because they have the expertise in-house.
Yes of course, that is a general development. We also have an internal product team, whereby the discussion between the disciplines has shifted to us. All architects think that they can design, and all designers think that they can build. I don’t think that way, but we let them do what they do and then discuss the results together. All products develop in a continuous dialogue between these disciplines – as real teamwork.

Thus a very interdisciplinary work and one involving different nationalities?
Yes, at our firm there are over 20 nationalities represented. That’s nothing special any more, also not in Asia.
But as those in charge who select and inspire, you and Rossana in fact surely give Neri&Hu’s works something like an Asian character. Can that be determined by something??
I suppose that it can never be avoided that our own socialisation is reflected in our work. Thus I am indeed very interested in details and rooms, but very large and vast spatial impressions are less my thing. We don’t gravitate to the grand gesture. Much of what we do is of a serial nature, and our background perhaps can best be reflected in that.

And how do you differentiate yourselves from each other?
At our firm, Rossana is the more masculine designer, and I am the one with the feminine touch. Her design is harsher, and she is tougher, while I’ll go more into detail. That’s how we view our design, and the way we work results from it. She has no fear of letting things appear ugly when only the concept is strong. For me the prerequisite is that it is beautiful to look at.

Is the same true also for materials? You often use materials that appear old for your interior designs, correct?
There it’s more than a matter of aesthetics. We basically prefer natural materials – natural, sometimes even bare wood, natural metal and natural rock. It would be difficult for us to work in Karim Rashid’s design world. Even if we respect his work – it’s not our world. Yet we don’t use old things for their own sake. The Waterhouse Project and the Design Commune House were first and foremost statements. We are opposed to the attitude in our society of destroying the old to build something new. The new doesn’t always have to be better. That is our belief. And if we don’t make this statement, then no one would in this city.

And how do your clients react to that?
They have to accept our premises if they come to us. For many it appears to be a question only of getting something new. But we strike a fresh balance in each project whether what is already there has to go or whether it can be integrated in a useful way. To take over or integrate the old for its own sake would in the end also be false, because it would be merely decorative.

Why are there so few projects like the Waterhouse?
For architects, it’s simpler to work with a tabula rasa mentality and tear everything down and start over from scratch. For Camper’s house and showroom, we on the other hand first asked: is it supposed to become a Camper house in Shanghai or a house in Shanghai in which there are Camper products? And because the client also liked the idea of preserving something from the materials from which this city was built, we collected wood and metal from three nearby demolition sites and re-assembled them for the Camper showroom. The only thing that’s really new there are the products.

Why is the question of material worth such great effort?
Material is important because it sometimes tells a story that gives us information about the future. This idea is also integrated into our ‘Haus’ at the imm cologne 2015. It is supposed to demonstrate that we have to recall the past in order to understand the future. Architecture and rooms consist of layers that are a shadow of our physical and emotional existence. That’s why we also like to work with mirrors. This principle of different layers constantly being added can be easily observed in the Shanghai Lane houses. But this is not only a Chinese phenomenon but also something than can be seen in every city. That’s where the name of our design came from: ‘Memory Lane’.

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