While glittering new high-rises sprout everywhere in Shanghai, gems of Western-style architecture from the early 20th century can still be found throughout the city. Or at least their facades remain; their interiors are another story. 'China is very good at keeping historical things in a superficial way,' explains Lyndon Neri, partner at Shanghai-based Neri&Hu Design and Research Office (NHDRO). 'People want to see prominent buildings that hearken back to the city's Concession era''the time during the 19th and 20th centuries when foreign powers such as Britain and France administered entire districts. 'But there's no semblance of that history inside.
In November, Neri&Hu finished converting a former police building in Shanghai's central Jing'an district into a flagship store for Design Republic, the six-year-old retail venture that Neri and Rossana Hu, his wife and partner, founded to sell high design to an emerging Chinese middle class. Called Design Republic Commune, the project serves as an outlet for furniture and other products by both foreign and Chinese designers, including Neri and Hu themselves. Neri&Hu wanted to make a deeper connection to history here than is typical in Chinese renovation efforts. The original three-story edifice was constructed by the British in the 1910s. Over the course of its life, it served in a number of different capacities, most recently as an elementary school. Each alteration retained the Anglo-inspired facade and the basic floor plan. But after the school was abandoned about three years ago, more than one developer proposed gutting the interior and constructing a high-rise residential tower within the century-old red-brick shell.