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How does one design for authenticity – particularly in the realm of hotel design? At INSIDE (World Festival of Interiors), Lyndon Neri of Neri&Hu suggested it comes down to an obsessive determination to stay true to the meaning of a place. Narelle Yabuka reports.



November 19th, 2013

Pairing the subject of hotel design with the notion of authenticity was, in some ways, a bold move by the organisers of INSIDE (World Festival of Interiors).

Given its very nature as a space for temporary occupation by people foreign to its location, for whom can the hotel be considered to strive for authenticity? Its patrons or the people who live in its locality? And if it is part of a chain, does a hotel’s quest for authenticity focus only on its own brand expression?

A session titled ‘What is Real? The Meaning of Authenticity’ was held on 2 October 2013 and chaired by Matt Turner, the editor of UK-based hotel design magazine Sleeper. It incorporated a presentation by Lyndon Neri of Neri&Hu Design and Research Office, as well as a discussion that included Singaporean hotelier and restaurateur Loh Lik Peng, CEO of Unlisted Collection – a group of unconventional boutique hotels and restaurants in Singapore, London, and Shanghai.

Water House

The Waterhouse at South Bund (2012), Shanghai. Photo © Derryck Menere 

In 2010, Loh opened The Waterhouse at South Bund in Shanghai designed by Neri&Hu. It is the first of his hotels to be located in China, and adaptively reuses a former Japanese army headquarters building from the 1930s. Neri&Hu took a particularly unconventional approach to privacy and publicity, having drawn inspiration from the unique spatial flavour of Shanghai’s labyrinthine nong tangs. Glimpses can be had between the hotel’s private and public areas in a daring form of spatial contextualism.

During the discussion, it emerged that authenticity in hotel design comes, for Neri, when the designer has a sense of conviction and wants to know and respect the place of his or her design. For Loh, it involves positioning one’s hotel in older local neighbourhoods rather than in newer ones dominated by consumption and international brands. It is crucial to carry the local population with you, he said, if a hotel is to resonate with authenticity.

Prior to this discussion, Neri presented a number of his studio’s projects as a means of discussing what he called ‘Brave New Authenticity’. He did so by framing the work with a series of ‘obsessions’. “To find true authenticity,” he explained, “I think it’s important to know what your obsessions are and make sure those obsessions stay true to your research – be it art, architecture, business, or whatever things you do.”

Neri & Hu

Rethinking the Split House (2012), Shanghai. Photo © Pedro Pegenaute

Neri used artworks to introduce his five obsessions. He presented the project Rethinking the Split House (2012) – a redefined lane house in Shanghai containing three tantalisingly overlapped residences – along with a provocative photograph by Helmut Newton under the obsessional category ‘voyeuristic gaze’. The obsession of ‘blurring the public and private’ was discussed through the Singapore project Cluny House (2012) – in which a central landscape is drawn inside and the interior is completely exposed to the outside.

Neri & Hu

Cluny House (2012), Singapore. Photo © Pedro Pegenaute

A third obsession, ‘objecthood’, was discussed alongside artist Rachael Whiteread’s artwork House – a concrete cast of a Victorian terrace house that exposed the typically unseen interior. Neri paired it with his studio’s project Design Republic at The Bund (2006) – a space that interiorised the retail experience by bringing the street within the building.

Neri & Hu

Design Republic Design Commune (2012), Shanghai. Photo © Pedro Pegenaute

For the obsessional category ‘rebranding history’, Neri showed an artwork by Andreas Gefeller from his Supervisions series, which offered a bird’s eye view into a floor of an empty residential building – a mixture of fiction and reality. Alongside he showed Neri&Hu’s Design Republic Design Commune (2012), a retail space in which old and new are stitched together to allow a renewed experience of the existing building.

Neri’s final obsession, ‘exhibiting cultural texture’, was introduced via Dutch photographer Robert van der Hilst’s work Chinese Interiors. In this series of photographs, Neri appreciated the ability of the foreigner to challenge strongly held local convictions. In Neri&Hu’s product and furniture designs, he said, “there’s always a Chinese component, but not necessarily in a way that people can easily see. There’s an abstract understanding. You understand the essence of what we’re trying to do.”


Camper showroom and office (2013), Shanghai. Photo © Shen Zhonghai

In this category, he also discussed the studio’s newest project – a store for Camper that was inspired by and situated within an old Chinese house. Partially disassembled and reflected back on itself by a large mirror, the store design has created a new destination through an investigative and reflective response to an existing condition. This led smoothly into Neri’s discussion of The Waterhouse – a hotel, he said, for a traveller rather than a tourist.

It may sound implausible that through his discussion of obsession (which can be a compulsive behavioural tendency), Neri could take his audience on a tour of aspects of the authentic in design – that is, the genuine and the real. For him, however, obsession is “a matter of survival. It’s about trying to keep the heritage – the essence and spirit that made Shanghai what it is today – alive and relevant for the next generation.”

“From Camper to Design Commune,” he concluded, “and even in our projects abroad, it is important for us to find that meaning and to hold on to it all the way from start to finish. Perhaps in this there will be a chance of finding true authenticity in the work you do.”


The Unlisted Collection

INSIDE (World Festival of Interiors) was held concurrently with the World Architecture Festival at Singapore’s Marina Bay Sands from 2–4 October 2013.

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