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The Waterhouse at South Bund by Neri & Hu Design and Research Office, Shanghai, China

Emerging Architecture Awards 2010: Winner

An inevitable and chastening consequence of China’s dash for growth has been an unsentimental cauterizing of the past. As the nation reinvents itself, historic buildings from all eras have been ruthlessly razed to make way for often execrable new architecture. So this project in Shanghai, which imaginatively reactivates the carcass of an existing building, immediately caught the jury’s eye for its pursuit of a more nuanced architectural and urban agenda away from the familiar shock of the Chinese new.

Located by the Cool Docks development in the South Bund district of Shanghai, the Waterhouse is a 19-room boutique hotel inserted into the decaying shell of a three-storey 1930s building. As it once was a headquarters for the Japanese Army, the building’s very survival is impressive, and its transformation into a bijou, upscale hotel, is curiously emblematic of how things change. The refurbished building lies on the edge of the Huangpu River, surveying the gleaming, Blade Runner skyline of Pudong across the water.

The project is by Shanghai-based NHDRO, an architecture and design practice founded by Lyndon Neri and Rossana Hu. Their approach is underscored by the industrial locale and the lucid yet poetically expressed articulation of what is old and what is new. The original concrete building has been restored, yet still retains a sense of grungy friability (complete with mould stains and peeled patches), which forms a powerful foil to the precisely expressed new work. Taking its cues from the industrial spirit that permeates the still working dockland surroundings, new parts are executed in dark timber, glass and tough Cor-Ten steel. The rusting flanks of a new floor grafted on to the concrete shell resemble the ships’ hulls that putter along the river, subtly reinforcing the connection with local history and context.

The interior is a dramatic carving-out of space around an external courtyard, with shades of Giorgio de Chirico in its geometric regiment of dark shutters on plain white walls, and a soaring lobby. Throughout, there’s a blurring and inversion of interior and exterior, as well as between public and private realms. Public spaces afford glimpses into private rooms, and conversely, private spaces engage intimately with communal areas. These visual connections orchestrate moments of surprise and delight, but also oblige guests to confront the Shanghai condition, in which visual corridors and adjacencies in tightly packed nong tangs (alleyways) define the urban and social character of the city.

The jury applauded the skill and sensitivity of the conversion. ‘What they have done is to leave old as it is, rough and dirty,’ said Gurjit Singh Matharoo. ‘So there’s a beautiful contrast created, and by just leaving it, it enhances both the old and the new.’ They were also heartened by the creatively preservationist approach that suggests a different way of dealing with China’s past.

‘It gives value to a relatively ordinary old decaying building’ said Nigel Coates. ‘Typically in China this would have been torn down,’ added Daniel Bonilla. ‘But they kept it and did it in the right way.’

Architect NHDRO, Shanghai, China
Project team Lyndon Neri, Rossana Hu, Deppu Haepers, Cai Chun yan, Felix Fu, Markus Stoecklein, Jane Wang, Dagmar Niecke, Briar Hickling, Koen Savelkoul, Chu Yao, Justin Gong
Structural engineer China Jingye Engineering Technology Company
Services engineer Far East Consulting
Photography Pedro Pegenaute Esparza and Derryck Menere

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