Weitzman’s Rossana Hu on adaptive reuse and historic architecture

Hu, the Miller Professor and chair of the Department of Architecture, takes a ‘common sense’ approach to adaptive reuse in her design work and teaching.

Celebrated architect Rossana Hu joined Penn as Miller Professor and chair of the Department of Architecture in the Weitzman School of Design in January of this year. Hu is founding partner of Neri&Hu Design and Research Office, the award-winning interdisciplinary architecture practice based in Shanghai, and served as professor and chair of the Department of Architecture in the College of Architecture & Urban Planning at Tongji University before coming to Penn.

Hu describes her “common sense” approach to adaptive reuse and her firm’s reputation for breathing new life into historic sites, and explains how her thinking about adaptive reuse evolved over the years.

The Waterhouse building at South Bund in Shanghai, China.
The Vertical Lane House | The Waterhouse at South Bund, Shanghai, China. (Image: Courtesy of Weitzman News)

“That question really points to the heart of our practice, both how we started, and where we want to take the practice. Our first adaptive reuse project really came out of not even knowing much about the topic. It’s a term that is becoming really fashionable, but often, before a term is widely used, people are already doing the work. For us, that’s definitely the case. We started with The Waterhouse at South Bund,” Hu says. “It was a very bold decision on our part because the site was supposed to be demolished—that was the original mandate from the client. They wanted a brand-new, talked-about building, and in their mind, that meant starting from scratch.”

“A lot of our design work focuses on resolving things by using common sense. Doing something as simple as buying a chair that can be used for a hundred years: That is a form of sustainability. With a building, if you don’t tear it down, and you use the structure and the walls, there’s a huge reduction in carbon footprint,” Hu says. “Nobody needs to go to school to learn this, it’s just common sense that you don’t throw things away.”

As for her curriculum at Weitzman next year Hu says, “I think it will be a studio—I usually teach studios—most likely focusing on adaptive reuse. Over the past three or four years, our practice has become very interested in focusing on ethnic enclaves and projects that deal with multi-ethnicity and inner-city issues. We’ve been working with Chinatowns in San Francisco as well as Milan,” Hu says. “I find Philadelphia’s Chinatown very interesting: It’s gone through many different transformations, and there are debates right now about plans for a new arena. I think it could be really interesting to use that as a studio site.”

Read more at Weitzman News.