4 projects to understand the seamless syntheses of Neri&Hu

A selection of the Shanghai studio’s most refined and precise projects, in which the comparison with the existing and the combination of elements reveals their great mastery of synthesis.

This article was originally published on Domus 1070, July-August 2022.

All writers know that once you have your title, you automatically have your conference, your article or your book: a perfect title captures the project behind an analysis, the argument underlying the whole. In short, titles resonate – they are words that reverberate, little magical boxes that open up entire worlds.

I have little patience and even less love for the words “adaptive reuse”. The term is hardly sonorous – its linguistic clumsiness makes it sound more like a dental procedure (and a painful one, at that) than an architectural opportunity. “Recycle” offers efficiency by being a single word, but it connotes kerbside bins, broken-down cardboard boxes, and rinsed-out bottles and aluminium cans. “Salvage”? Conjures coastal shipwrecks or wooden railroad ties or church pews repurposed as chic cafe furniture. “Layers” gets at the multiplicity of materials in any adaptive reuse project, but for anyone schooled in the late ’80s and ’90s, “layers” can’t help but evoke palimpsests and other overlaps, primarily horizontal and temporal.

I’m not entirely sure that “Seamless Syntheses” hits the spot with the particular magical precision and zing that unlocks intellectual horizons and other worlds. But let’s run with it, for it does capture the extraordinary talent that Neri&Hu possesses when it comes to combining. I offer this praise of combination with some caution, however: aside from the current Swiss/Belgian propensity to design projects with singular material palettes, most contemporary architecture everywhere else across today’s globe does little more than combine.



Perhaps this zealous combinatory proclivity stems from a critique of modernism’s singularity, particularly the massive singularity of late modern brutalism, which has long been an easy target for criticism. But late modernism’s perceived “failure” really is less a formal or material issue than a maintenance and programmatic one.

I suspect that the current fad for extreme combining is probably less a critique of architectural elders and more a repercussion of the alarming and alarmingly widespread reduction of quality in materials, construction and detailing across the global construction industry. In short, multiplying materials distracts. And many contemporary buildings require more and more distraction.

In his essay of 1936, The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility, Walter Benjamin wrote that architecture’s reception is “consummated by a collectivity in a state of distraction”. What would Benjamin say were he to bear witness to the many, many, many buildings today that only accelerate this very condition of collective distraction? Which brings us to Neri&Hu, who have resisted this combinatory propensity with elegance and care across their entire career. Rather than combine willy-nilly, they synthesise, and they do so to stunning effect.

Fuzhou Teahouse


The Brick Wall | Tsingpu Yangzhou Retreat synthesises old and new, inside and outside, brick and concrete, brick and wood, and brick and landscape. The reclaimed brick is a constant across the site, drawing all parts and pieces into a coherent whole, but even that brick is treated differently – from very flat running bond to breeze block to two-layer brick to extruded brick to angled brick. Despite the virtuoso display of brick possibilities, the entire retreat comes together in the reclaimed material’s soft grey tones, and the constant dimensions of the single brick and the continuous walls.

Similar synthetic success can be found at The Black Box Redux | Building Number 31 in Shanghai. Where other projects synthesise extraordinary existing structures, adapting them with the addition of carefully curated new elements, this project reconfigures what Neri&Hu describe as a “four-story nondescript office and dormitory building for the local telecoms company”. Where the Brick Wall project was held tightly by the low contrast of the grey brick, this project contrasts the green glazed tiles at the ground floor with the matte, dark grey painted facade above. Nevertheless, while the colours differ, they are of a familial intensity, rather than a high contrast clash. Inside, the rough concrete post-and-beam construction contrasts with smooth white walls and polished concrete floors, again offering difference, but within a colour palette that one can call familial, rather than high contrast.

Nantou City Guesthouse


The Vertical Lane House | The Waterhouse at South Bund does offer up higher contrasts but does so with such exquisite finesse so as to turn jarring juxtaposition into smooth synthesis. The project transforms a concrete Japanese army building from the 1930s into a hotel. Cor-Ten steel additions on top echo the concrete curves and weightiness of the original building below. In an interior courtyard, thin wood and mirrored metal shutters open at each inhabitant’s will, animating the stark white walls. The DNA of the original workhorse of a building lives through the almost invisible detailing of each additional surface – doors, canopies, shutters and even the windows themselves are insertions of flat, simple, singular materials, with all frames, hinges and other hardware made invisible.

Similarly, Neri&Hu’s Design Republic Home project synthesises the heaviness of a load-bearing brick building – Shanghai’s British police headquarters from the 1910s – with remarkably light steel and glass insertions and additions. Like at the Vertical Lane House, large panes of glass are here held magically in place by taut thin steel frames. Even more magical is the project’s thinnest detail of all: the exquisite interior railing which, like the pendant light structure, introduces the most delightful, if incongruous airiness to the most solid of structures. This contrast is breathtakingly precise, rather than becoming clownishly oppositional.

The Chuan Malt Whisky Distillery


Every one of Neri&Hu’s projects strikes this delicate balance of refinement, permitting them to exploit inherited rough surfaces and flawed materials, structures and conditions by incorporating them in the most controlled of ways into wholes made up of parts that blend seamlessly into one another through the architectural tools of proportions, surfaces, textures and careful, careful quiet detailing, rather than the rhetorical tools of shape, metaphor and pattern. Theirs is a quiet synthesis that is not meant to mask or distract, but neither is it meant to call attention to itself. Theirs is a timeless approach to the contemporary – not a heavy-handed or self-congratulatory “adaptive reuse” but a quiet and powerful seamless synthesis.

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