Inside the Design Republic Commune

Behind the scenes at Neri & Hu's latest design project in Jingan

Lyndon Neri and Rosanna Hu have run a design studio in Shanghai since 2004. Their architecture projects here include The Waterhouse on South Bund, but, to non-architects or designers, their interiors are probably more prolific. If you’ve ever been to Capo, Table No 1 or Jean George’s Bund restaurant Mercato, you’ll know they have a penchant for reclaimed woods, raw concrete and bare filament lightbulbs. Their interiors often have a spare, unfinished feel, but almost always achieve a warmth in even the most flat, industrial spaces.

Opened in November last year, their latest project restores a red-brick former police headquarters in Jingan. The Design Republic Commune is part gallery, retail and event space that, among other things, is set to house a one-bedroom hotel and Michelin-starred chef Jason Artherton’s new restaurant (set to open next month, we’re promised). Based on Jiangning Lu, the building is also home to a new flagship store of Neri & Hu’s furniture label Design Republic. At its core, though, the pair say the space is intended to be a sort of ideas exchange, a hub to foster discourse in design and architecture through lectures, talks and exhibitions. Precisely the kind of space, they say, that’s lacking in Shanghai.

‘In China, the phenomenon of copying is very great,’ said Lyndon Neri, in a telling interview with online design site Dezeen at the opening of their space last November. ‘So people look at magazines and they go, “I could sort of do this minimalist thing, I’ll have the contractor do something like this.” It’s done in such a mama huhu, half-assed way that it becomes, you know, scary.’ Neri adds that the pair have noticed the stark absence of a ‘modern Chinese architecture and design language.’

The Design Republic Commune will attempt to establish what they call the missing ‘collective voice’ of Chinese architecture as well as educate the public about design. At the launch of the space last month, the pair hosted Manifesto, an open, two-day symposium with talks from a series of international guest speakers. Small red booklets, resembling Mao’s ‘Little Red Book’, were distributed at the opening, offering the beginnings of a manifesto with blunt, propaganda-like slogans such as: ‘We seek beauty in the everyday;’ ‘We celebrate the unseen, the untouched, and the untold;’ and ‘We denounce design for the sake of design’.

We asked them to elaborate on why China needs such a manifesto. ‘Compared to other parts of the world where a firm may not be packed with fast deadline projects, design professionals are too busy to think about their work here,’ says Neri. This creates a vacuum of discussion and dialogue, he adds, where the community is more interested in business and making money than in issues of environment, building and design. ‘We are all, in different ways, looking for a new modern architecture language that China can call its own. This takes time, but also a certain attitude towards creating a manifesto,’ he continues. ‘That’s why we think we need an idealism embedded in our work system and philosophy here.’

Built in the 1910s, the building is a relic of British colonialism and is owned by the Chinese government. We ask if there was any resistance to their renovation plans. ‘No, [the government] were very supportive,’ says Hu. ‘It was a very dilapidated building, so they were pleasantly surprised that it had any value at all. We were very happy that what they thought was an outdated and useless building was something that could be brought back to life’.

Which invites the question whether, in fact, the whole idea of renovation is anathema to Chinese design sensibilities. Will new always trump the old? Not entirely, says Hu. ‘I think it is just a matter of awareness and consciousness. The people here may have looked at modernism from a very superficial perspective, thinking that to modernise China the cities must look new, “modern”, and be rid of the old’, she says. ‘But I think it is a matter of time that people will start to appreciate, understand and promote the preservation of the parts of history within their respective urban fabrics.’

Despite the challenges, though, the duo see many advantages to working in China today. ‘Perhaps the biggest problem here is working with inexperienced developers and clients, whose processes are simplified and project management skills are very lacking,’ says Hu. ‘We have to spend a lot of time here educating the people we work with.’ But there are many positives within the architecture landscape here, she adds. ‘For one, the potential for creating beyond traditional boundaries is much more possible here than elsewhere. Sometimes ignorance provides more opportunity for experiment,’ she continues. ‘And, therefore, revolution.’

The Design Republic Commune 511 Jiangning Lu, near Kanding Lu, Jingan district (6176 7088; Changping Lu. Open 10am-7pm daily. 静安区江宁路511号, 近康定路