This article was originally published in the fall 2012 Harker Quarterly.
It’s been a year since Wendy Tsai ’04 spontaneously moved to Shanghai to work for the Neri & Hu Design and Research Office, an internationally renowned multidisciplinary architecture and furniture design firm.
Tsai was in New York researching boutique hotel precedents while working for another architectural firm when she came across an intriguing magazine article about the Hotel Waterhouse, located in Shanghai and designed by Neri & Hu.
Tsai was immediately struck by the impressive architectural detailing of the hotel, a 1930s warehouse now made over into a small yet elegant hotel noted for fusing modernism with the city’s storied past. The 19-room hotel boasts a renovation with many of the old walls remaining intact while new elements sprout out of the old, creating a rare architectural linkage between then and now.
“I really liked the details in Neri & Hu’s work, so I sent them an email telling them so … and ended up moving to Shanghai to work for them four weeks later!” recalled Tsai incredulously.
Having only been to Shanghai once for a family vacation when she was 10, she didn’t know what to expect. But, she figured, with so many exciting architectural developments now happening in China, “Why not check it out and see how it is to live in Shanghai while I can still explore and move around?”
The decision turned out to be a wise one for Tsai, who is learning much while on the job at Neri & Hu. The award-winning firm, regularly featured in international design magazines, was founded in 2004 by partners Lyndon Neri and Rossana Hu.
One of the things that attracted Tsai to Neri & Hu was its global reach in providing architecture, interior, master planning, graphic and product design services. Currently working on projects in eight countries, Neri & Hu has a multicultural staff with a capacity to speak more than 20 different languages.
“The projects we have at the office are very diverse and interesting,” said Tsai, noting, for example, that she’s had the opportunity to oversee the design and completion of a new store concept of a luxury retailer dedicated to young contemporary designers like Harker’s own Alexander Wang ’98.
“The design opportunities are definitely a lot more interesting here in Shanghai – it’s like the new American dream, where anything can happen,” she said.
Yet, despite her new, exciting life, Tsai will always have fond memories of her time spent at Harker. “I really miss the Harker days,” said Tsai, who got her start at the middle school back in 1999 with the then-available boarding program. “The dorm years, as well as the high school years, will always have a special place in my heart.”
According to Tsai, Harker fostered a supportive learning environment, both academically and socially, leading the way for her to explore various art media that helped prepare her portfolio for architecture schools.
Tsai now advises other Harker alumni who wish to take on work abroad to travel and explore as much as they can while not yet completely tied down by obligations.
For Tsai, following the path to her dream architectural job has been quite an adventure and memorable experience. “At first I was in cultural shock. Now, I enjoy learning something new every day … nothing ceases to be surprising!” she said.