The Waterhouse at South Bund
Fast-disappearing, Shanghai’s nong tang (lane houses) combine European construction with Chinese notions of tightly packed residential life. From the street, these early-20th-century buildings present gabled facades — respectable and a bit staid. But once you walk through the door to the lane running between the houses, you encounter a messy world of clothes hanging out to dry, shutters flung open, people gossiping, and kids running around. Private space bleeds into the public realm, with some folks cooking in the shared lane and others bathing their children there.
Neri & Hu Design and Research Office (NHDRO) tried to capture the spirit of a nong tang in its design of the Waterhouse at South Bund, a trio of industrial buildings from the early 1930s converted into a 19-room boutique hotel. Blending old and new, Western and local, the firm turned a nong tang on end. “We wanted to create a vertical lane house,” states Lyndon Neri, who founded the Shanghai-based firm with his wife, Rossana Hu, in 2004. So instead of a series of public-blurring-into-private spaces that unfolds as you walk down an alley, the hotel reveals itself through a number of vertical cuts offering views down and up from guest rooms into public spaces (and vice versa).
Walk into the three-story-high lobby and look at the wall behind the reception desk. One flight above the desk, you’ll notice a tall, narrow pane of glass overlooking the most public space in the hotel. It’s a window of a guest room. Book that room, and you get to present yourself to everyone in the lobby; one guest did it totally naked, says Neri.
Wander over to Table No. 1, the hotel’s restaurant, run by chef Jason Atherton, who had worked for Gordon Ramsay in London and Dubai. Check out the ceiling and you’ll discover a pair of long, deep slices bringing light from guest rooms one story above. While you can’t actually see anyone in the rooms because the vertical slot is too narrow, you realize the architects have designed a three-dimensional game of peek-a-boo. Either you’re horrified by such transgressions of the usual boundaries between public and private or you get a quiet thrill from them.
NHDRO exposed other things, too. Instead of refinishing the building’s aging facades and interior surfaces, the firm flaunted decay as a prominent theme. Fading paint, water stains, even holes in plaster walls remain for all to see. The hotel wears these marks as John Huston did his hard-earned wrinkles and leathery skin.
History serves as a powerful force in this project. Located in an old docks area, the hotel retains the rugged character of its industrial past. “We wanted to demonstrate a new way of preserving things,” explains Neri. “You don’t have to clean it all up.” The architects let layers of time impart a richness of experience that expensive surfaces would have covered up. So they kept the ghosted outlines of floor slabs removed to create the tall lobby space and didn’t touch a small cluster of foam-green tiles mounted in the 1950s and still clinging to one wall of the lobby. In general, new elements — such as flush windows, a concrete reception desk, and black-painted steel columns and beams — clearly identify themselves as modern insertions. But in a few places, Neri and Hu blurred periods — for example, mixing new gray bricks with old ones as floor pavers and recycling wood from the old building’s rotting roof for tabletops in the restaurant and shutters facing a courtyard. (For the inside surface of these shutters, the architects used reflective metal, continuing their voyeuristic game of offering peeks into unexpected places.)
From the outside, visitors clearly see NHDRO’s approach to history and materials — with Cor-Ten steel wrapping around a new rooftop garden and sliding from an entry canopy to the front door. Inside, new materials, such as Cor-Ten, concrete, and painted steel, recall the building’s industrial heritage without fooling anyone about their age. In addition to carving out the tall lobby, the architects animated a courtyard at the center of the site with the wood-and-mirrored-metal shutters that form ever-changing patterns depending on which ones are open and how they are angled. Tucked behind the hotel, NHDRO converted a warehouse into a special events hall, which supplements income earned from the guest rooms.
In stitching together three adjacent buildings to create the hotel, NHDRO kept old elements such as concrete stairs and used ramps to negotiate different floor levels, instead of erasing these quirks with a common datum for each story. While each guest room is different, they all adopt a uniform vocabulary: oak floors and beds, concrete bathrooms with tinted-glass walls, and built-in desks and cabinets along new white walls. Along walls where the old building fabric was retained, NHDRO used freestanding elements, such as mirrors and furnishings designed by the firm. Making the most of the building’s idiosyncrasies, some rooms enjoy private decks while others get glassed-in viewing platforms raised a couple of feet, the better to spy on neighboring lots and catch glimpses of the Huangpu River.
In the past, NHDRO employed spectacle as a strategy in many of its interiors. With the Waterhouse, the firm uses an almost cinematic approach to space and procession, teasing a sense of suspense out of our desire to see and be seen. If Hitchcock were alive, he might want to shoot a remake of Rear Window here.
Completion Date: May 2010
Gross square footage: 9186 sq.ft.
NHDRO (Neri & Hu Design and Research Office)
- Media Library and Cultural Centre / Barbotin + Gresham Architects (archdaily.com)
- Modern Restaurant: Bei by Neri & Hu Design and Research Office (chictip.com)
- Ideas For Putting A Guest Bed In A Small Space (brighthub.com)
- Makeover at Grand Hyatt Sheds the Trump Glitter (nytimes.com)
- Before & After: Guest Room Paint Job (apartmenttherapy.com)