During the latest Design Indaba Festival, we have the chance to interview Lyndon Neri and Rossana Hu, from Neri&Hu Design and Research Office, a Shanghai-based inter-disciplinary architectural design practice, about their work and way of thinking about architecture.
Danae Santibáñez (DS): Thanks for a very clear and eye-opening presentation. You define yourselves as a multidisciplinary firm, therefore, you work with different areas of design. Do you believe that the standardization of construction materials has taken over diversity in architecture?
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Lyndon Neri (LN): Yes, it's is interesting that you mention that because we are now starting a number of projects in the US, and actually, it's getting us nervous because there are a certain standardization and efficiency within the U.S. architecture market. Which we understand is important in terms of liability, means, methods, quality, and in relationship to price and costs.
But at the same time, just because it's readily available doesn't mean as architects we should be lazy. So now we are confronted with; How do we take this standardization?
Because standardization is something prevalent in our communities and for example, very much present in the context that we are now practicing, we have to analyze how can we be creative within that context?
As a matter of fact, China is also moving towards facing the same challenge. When a country becomes richer the idea of handcraft and customization becomes not sustainable and unaffordable. And standardization comes in to play a role.
I don't think it's a negative thing, but it is our duty as architects to be more resilient and innovative, a lot of well-known architects, and young practices too, have managed to deal with this issue very well.
DS: In the presentation, you also talked about mixing the interior with the exterior, and it reminded me of Andrea Branzi's approach towards the adaptative dimension of interior design and how it directly affects our ways of living. Would you say that interior design gives space for more innovation, helping to improve how we live on a daily basis?
Rossana Hu (RH): I think that first of all, we don't like to draw too much differentiation between interior architecture and architecture itself. Whereas we do want to make a differentiation between interior design and interior architecture.
We see interior design as part of the architecture itself, and it should not just be about picking furniture, paintings, and different finishes. Interior Design should really be about space.
For us, the interior is a space quality that relates to the experience of inhabiting the space.
LN: What we need to differentiate is interior decoration. When design becomes decorative, you start dealing with unnecessary things. A while ago we were in Porto, and if you look at Alvaro Siza's spaces, even though some people claim he is 'not into interior design', the unique spatial quality of all his interior spaces is undeniable. He believes, as do we, in the architecture's capacity to weave between interior and exterior, and what he really is against, is the whole decorative part. Sometimes interiors become so decorative that you lose the essence of the space.
I remember having classes with Rafael Moneo, at the GSD, he was really strict. He paid little attention to the elevation of projects, instead, he was always asking for the section. I remember getting nervous about it. For him, the section contextualizes the project and is where you can see all the details come together, and if you think about it...the section is really all about interior spaces.
RH: The section is where the exterior and the interior comes together.
LN: I think that really runs into what we are doing, interiority became an important part of our practice, we are very inspired for example, by Carlo Scarpa's designs. Besides, having worked for Michael Graves and the interdisciplinary nature of that practice allowed us to have a deeper approach towards details and interior spaces.
RH: Also nowadays, I think a lot of architects put interior aside because they feel it is not relevant. Whereas in our practice we consider it as a core essential part of a design
DS: There's a lot of criticism about how our contemporary generation of architects is or is not leaving a legacy of great architecture for future generations. And in this matter, I think that your practice has a great deal of influence on younger generations, so, What would you hope is your architecture and design legacy for future generations?
LN: Obviously, legacy is up to historians to tell, it is not for us to talk about it. Certainly, we believe that architecture is a modest catalyst, not just to create shelter or just playing with different forms. We are starting to see that architecture engages with a spatial component. For example, when we were in Porto visiting Siza's work, we were really moved, we stayed for more than an hour at the SAAL Bouça social-housing project, it was emotional.
We also visited the Indian Institute of Management by Louis Kahn and despite the fact that it's crumbling, there's that undeniable public component. Or when we visited the Mill Owners' Association Building by Le Corbusier, it is evident that is aesthetically attractive and has quite an active life, but what is really interesting about it, is how the public and the private spaces relate and interact.
So I would say that we hope for our buildings, to have a sense of permanence and that when visited, people will have wonderful memories. It's not so much about the spectacle.
We are also concerned, it is challenging to deal with design after visiting great architecture as the examples I mentioned before. At moments we have thought to stop practicing since we are not creating anything new.
DS: I was going to say, as a personal opinion, that I think you have that also spatial dimension including public affairs. Your work also shows an amazing and very unique balance between innovation and technology, specifically on how to deal with heritage.
RH: I think it's about making connections, associating the past and the future, even though it sounds very simple, but it's not. What I find problematic, and why I previously brought out the form, is that today, when you think of futuristic design it is always related to form; passive, curves, maybe even more organic shapes become futuristic, but the technology hasn't changed, the material has not changed, and experience hasn't changed. We are hoping that we will find a form that is an expression of those changes, find something with those qualities, and connect with our past. Then we would slowly move on.
I think it's easy to agree on moving on as the early modernists did and just say 'we're not going to worry about history, we're just going to stay true to our new beliefs'. Well, that is why there's Postmodernism.
LN: I am very optimistic. Rem recently opened an exhibition about the rural. For the longest time, we have engaged with that topic, and before he was not interested in rural issues, just because he was still interested in scales and urban issues. But I think now he is aware of the rural conflict, he has a powerful voice and people should pay attention to what he is saying.
This article is part of the ArchDaily Topic: Human Scale. Every month we explore a topic in-depth through articles, interviews, news, and projects. Learn more about our monthly topics here. As always, at ArchDaily we welcome the contributions of our readers; if you want to submit an article or project, contact us.