In the heart of Sydney, an iconic listed building has been transformed by make architects into a world-class 5-star hotel for the Capella Hotel Group. The project marks the Group's first venture into Australia.
Scottish-Australian architect George McRae designed the original building for the New South Wales Government. The first part of the listed building was constructed in 1912, with the second part constructed two years later. Situated a mere 400m from Sydney Harbour, the landmark building features impressive Edwardian-Baroque-style sandstone facades that recall the grand architectural history of Sydney.
The brief for the architects was to retain as much of the original heritage fabric as possible while accommodating a modern luxury hotel. Given the importance of the heritage aspect, the architects worked closely from the project's outset with heritage consultant Urbis to fully understand the site's history, ensuring that all areas of exceptional heritage significance were restored or retained and any intrusive or detrimental interventions removed.
As part of the refurbishment, the architects reinstated the original floor plans, introducing a circular access corridor on each floor with views to a reinstated rectilinear central courtyard. Guests can orient themselves by looking up to the sky or down to the courtyard from every level. Another key move was removing solid walls not original to the architectural fabric between the access corridor and the heritage staircase. In their place are custom timber doors with glazed sidelights, which create a visual and physical connection between the stairs and the lobby lift.
The heritage perimeter slab around the entirety of the building was retained, with bathrooms, main risers, and services to the roof located on a new infilled slab. This prevented penetration into the heritage slab and allowed the architects to play around with elevating the entrance sequence to enhance the ground plane.
Alongside the existing budling and original details, contemporary interventions elevate the guest experience and ensure longevity for the building. Restoring and upgrading the heritage marble staircase was particularly challenging. The existing wrought iron balustrades were too low in height, and the marble stair treads warped from years of use. As a result, the stairs are noncompliant with the modern building code. The architects worked closely with the contractor and expert stonemasons to design new stair marble inserts with beautiful contrasting nosings, brass trims and a glass balustrade. The detail of the historic metal scrollwork is brought to the forefront in a respectful, seamless way that achieves functionality while maintaining historical integrity.
A four-storey modern extension responds to and expands on the listed structure beneath. Treated as secondary to the original building both in terms of massing and design, it is setback and wrapped in bespoke fluted anodized metal fins with curved glass corner details that complement the heritage architecture. The new floors include larger guestroom suites, notably different from the heritage portion due to a change in ceiling height and windows, but still maintaining the design identity of the hotel as a whole.
The roof design is a central element of the overall scheme, mainly as it is visible from neighbouring tall buildings. Included are bespoke cladding and fish-scale perforated screens in a nod to the heritage metalwork details of Farrer Place, concealing the roof plane and services and allowing the building to be read from above, just as it is from the street.
The existing facades were built differently because the building was constructed in two halves. The northern façade is load-bearing, and the southern façade is purely decorative, with a load-bearing steel frame behind. The shift between north and south is undetectable from the outside, but the distinction is defined by the art inside the hotel, which references the portfolios of the government departments that formerly occupied each half of the building.
Each food and beverage venue has its own character and unique design details. The courtyard venue, Aperture, includes a bespoke kinetic sculpture by Amsterdam-based Studio Drift, weeping fig trees, and a 7m green wall beneath a double-height glass ceiling. The McRae Bar includes hand-painted murals by Gumbaynggirr/Bundjalung artist Otis Carey, while the hotel restaurant Brasserie 1930 combines rich timber finishes with a black and white marble floor.
As part of the planning permission, the architects were required to preserve the level 6 gallery as one large, open space. Rather than double up on event space, it was decided to repurpose the gallery and transform it into a luxury wellness centre. The architects took inspiration from the heritage copper-line roof lanterns to inform the spatial planning.
Treatment rooms are formed from a series of sculptural interlocking bronze-toned cubes inserted into the space, locating each room under a roof lantern. Also, restored lanterns bring in plentiful natural light and celebrate the interplay between heritage details and modern luxury. The wellness centre includes a swimming pool, which, suspended at a height of 20m, required innovative engineering solutions.
Artworks such as Donald Judd's metal boxes and Antony Gormley's installation Model informed the concept for the wellness centre, while Richard Wilson's installation 20:50 inspired the pool. The pool runs the length of the space beneath the long heritage roof lantern, and its reflections help give the impression of a gallery, hinting at the space's former use. The design and aesthetic of the level 6 gallery have remained consistent throughout the seven years of the project and have now been realized as originally envisioned.
In collaboration with Aspect Studio, make architects also transformed the adjacent Farrer Place outside the front entrance with new paving, greenery, and seating that re-stablishes the space as a pivotal city square and engages the wider city. The architects worked hard to establish a relationship with the outside public realm, thus creating a welcoming arrival sequence for guests and passersby.