Is it possible to create poetry in architecture? According to Merriam-Webster, poetry is “writing that formulates a concentrated imaginative awareness of experience in language chosen and arranged to create a specific emotional response through meaning, sound, and rhythm.” For architects, replace “writing” with a term like "design," "building," or "architecture," and the definition holds. “To me there was, and is, something in the structure, rhythm, balance, and the very language of architecture corresponding in certain ways with those of sonnets, odes, and epics,” writes The Guardian architecture critic Jonathan Glancey.
The thoughtfully crafted works of Shanghai-based Neri & Hu exhibit poetry in the use of architectural materials. Established in 2004 by Lyndon Neri and Rossana Hu, the firm designs architecture as a Gesamtkunstwerk, or total work of art, incorporating their employees’ versatile skills in interior, exhibition, product, and graphic design into their commissions. Many of the firm’s buildings are adaptive reuse projects, yet the outcome is always so sufficiently refined and well-integrated that it is difficult to discern where the old components end and the new ones begin. This is a result, in part, of the firm's detailed analysis of context, a fearless approach to material experimentation, and a sensitivity to how materials communicate with people. “Neri & Hu believes that materials should relate to the human condition,” Hu tells ARCHITECT. “They are not there only for visual pleasure, but for a tactile connection to the spaces.”
This quality is evident in the recently opened Aranya Art Center in Qinhuangdao, China. The 16,000-square-foot museum is clad primarily in precast concrete, with a few apertures delineated in bronze. Occupying a maximum footprint on its ocean resort site, the concrete edifice exudes a scaleless heaviness and severity—an enormous risk for a public project in an active pedestrian area. However, Neri & Hu’s deft manipulation of the building’s surface adds texture and detail to dispel typical concerns about solid concrete façades.
The exterior experiments with a variety of approaches to concrete, including faceted, visually homogeneous modules and flat panels with exposed aggregate. Apertures either break the system with protruding bronze frames or hide behind modified, open-backed units. “While maintaining the overall opaque building volume, the objective of the façade was to still take advantage of the potential for interactions with the environs, the seasonality, and various qualities of light,” Hu says. “Viewed from a distance as a whole, the façade is read as a textural treatment, while closer encounters from various angles reveal the faceting and play on light and shadow.”
The renovation of the Sulwhasoo Flagship Store in the Gangnam-gu neighborhood of Seoul is also the result of the firm's holistic material strategy. The exterior of the Korean cosmetic brand's remodeled building is similar to Aranya in its expansive use of concrete (and stone, in this case) with varied openings. However, a fundamental difference is the appearance of a secondary material language of brass filigree. A closely spaced, 3D matrix of brass rods occupies a vertical slot that connects the building entrance to the roof terrace above. The delicate elements form a thickened poché resembling a glinting cloud that envelops the exterior stairwell. These shimmering elements also spill into the building, defining the primary interior as well as exterior spaces. Inspired by the concept of a lantern, the brass structure acts as a wayfinding element for the project.
“Neri & Hu aspired to create a space that appeals to all the senses, that captures the customer immediately as they approach the building, creates an experience that continues to unfold during the journey through the store, and leaves a strong impression with visitors long after they have left,” Hu explains. “This is what led to the lantern concept, where a continuous brass structure is the element that ties the whole store together, guiding customers while they explore the full extent of the space.”
The Tsingpu Yangzhou Retreat in Yangzhou, China, similarly employs the idea of an organizing structure, in this case as a comprehensive, adaptive reuse strategy. Located near the Scenic West Lake in Jiangsu province, the project consists of several renovated structures that are incorporated within a site-scaled complex of walled courtyards. The reclaimed gray brick masonry unifies the otherwise diverse spatial experience of the different courtyards, which are occupied by buildings, gardens, pools, or paved courts. Brick walls are solid or perforated, flat or textured via recessed units, and thin or thickened to incorporate interior circulation.
This masterful deployment of reclaimed brick demonstrates how architects can significantly expand the experiential opportunities with a single material, exemplifying the interdisciplinary Gesamtkunstwerk concept as a strategy that encompasses an entire site. “Architecture is still the foundation from which we do everything, so it is the most important for us,” Neri says. “We see design as a holistic discipline, taking it from the renaissance notion of seeing design as a multidisciplinary approach.”
“If not taken seriously and rigorously researched, a project that deals with the old and the new can easily be a fashion statement,” Neri says. This careful, investigative approach and a sensitivity to tactile and inviting materials deliver the rich and immersive experiences for which Neri & Hu are well-known. As Hu explains, material poetry is ultimately a visceral phenomenon: "The warmth of natural walnut, the glowing sheen of bronze, the stippled texture of stone, the unique pattern of each hand-glazed tiles draw you into a space, while your senses react to them in a primitive and instinctual way.”