Reinventing the Feel: Hong Kong re-discovers its heritage buildings

Reinventing the Feel: Hong Kong re-discovers its heritage buildings

When Hong Kong’s first luxury hotel opened in 1868, it had a grand staircase, colonial décor and a prime location on Queens Road so close to Victoria Harbour, the Post observed, “you could fish from the hotel windows”. Since then a number of prestigious lodgings have come and gone, some destroyed by fire, the majority razed for redevelopment. Hong Kong’s rapid transformation into a modern metropolis has included a fair share of casualties: Buddhist temples, colonial mansions, traditional shophouses and other lost architectures. 

But over the past decade, the government has channeled its efforts and resources towards conserving and revitalizing what is left of the city’s heritage. The former Explosive Magazine in Admiralty now houses The Asia Society in a thoughtful conversion by Tod Willams Billie Tsien Architects, and the old Police Married Headquarters on Hollywood Road has been transformed into mixed-use retail venue with studios for art and design.

The latest project in the local government’s ‘Conserving Central’ initiative is the Murray Building, a former municipal building on Cotton Tree Drive that Foster + Partners is transforming into a luxury hotel. Opening in January 2018, The Murray, Hong Kong, a Niccolo Hotel, will feature 336 oversized rooms and suites spanning 25 floors.

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The Niccolo hotel brand was created by Hong Kong conglomerate Wharf Holdings in 2015 to cater to the growing sophistication of China’s luxury hotel sector, and it is expanding rapidly. The Niccolo Chengdu opened last year, and Wharf has announced plans to open new hotels in Chongqing, Changsha and Suzhou.

The company’s US$1 billion flagship Hong Kong property will be housed in a building easily recognizable for its white façade, three-story arches and unique recessed windows. Designed by British modernist architect Ron Phillips in 1969, the structure was considered an early pioneer in energy efficient design – its concrete blade walls block the sun’s rays from ever hitting the glass panes directly – and it won several awards for its forward-thinking approach.

But according to Mr. Colin Ward, a principal at Foster + Partners in Hong Kong, the design strategy is equally impressive today. “One of the first things that inspired and amazed us was the sustainable nature of the project,” he says. “The building is over 40 years old and the approach to sustainability was revolutionary at the time and is revolutionary now.”

Ward’s team worked to carefully preserve the building’s sustainable design features while updating technical standards and opening the structure up to its surroundings. This included enlarging the windows to expand views from the hotel rooms, adding outdoor spaces and connecting the building with its location on Cotton Tree drive.

As a former government building, the Murray Building had been fenced off from the surrounding areas for many years for security reasons. It was also designed at a time when the city was planned around the car and, like many office buildings in Central it stands on an island site, surrounded by roads making it impenetrable to pedestrians.

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Foster + Partners focused on creating a sense of arrival no longer dominated by the motorcar. The building’s location between Hong Kong Park and the Botanical Gardens offered an opportunity to connect with the city’s network of greenery, while its three-story arches opened unique possibilities for grand public spaces. In the new plan, a large cotton tree anchors the forecourt and the former driveway that circled the building is re-conceived as The Arches, a semi-alfresco events space.

“Visitors walk through the majestic arches rising three stories from the ground level into the hotel lobby,” explains Mr. Armstrong Yakubu of Foster + Partners. “Here, an elegant staircase connects to the garden level encompassing a beautiful lounge and restaurant.”

Several of the bars and restaurants debuting at the hotel will have outdoor spaces. The Garden Lounge will have a terrace looking out onto Hong Kong Park and the rooftop bar will offer sparkling vistas of the cityscape. There will also be a sleek European restaurant called The Tai Pan, a private dining room housed in a striking glass façade, and Guo Fu Lou at The Murray, an indoor-outdoor restaurant with interiors by Andre Fu / AFSO.

The hotel interiors, which also come courtesy of Foster + Partners, feature a streamlined aesthetic. “The concept was to showcase the inherent beauty of the materials --there are no applied finishes such as paint,” explains Mr. Yakubu. White and black marble floors are paired with polished metals and a bronze stainless steel finish. Other details, such as handmade glass contrasted with fabrics from Italy and Asia, add an element of artistry to the interior spaces.

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The hotel rooms start at 506sqft and range up to 2422sqft for the Murray Suite, which features his and hers walk-in wardrobes, separate living and dining areas, a pantry, study, and fitness zone. Duncan Palmer, the hotel’s Managing Director, formerly oversaw major renovations at The Savoy and The Connaught in London and describes the hotel aesthetic as “contemporary urban chic”. Notably, he adds, the property will not include any retail offerings.

This is a marked departure from the typical Hong Kong property – Central is essentially a giant interconnected shopping mall – but a purposeful one. “Our design intent for The Murray has been to rediscover the romance of going to a hotel,” says Mr. Yakubu. “Most new hotels today are buried within mixed-use buildings. The Murray recalls the tradition of the grand hotels.”

If there is a hint of nostalgia to all of this, it shouldn’t come as a surprise. Perhaps in response to rising tensions with the Mainland, Hong Kong – a place that has long prized development above all else – appears to be recognizing the importance of historic buildings, not as static vestiges of the past but as integral parts of its unique cultural identity. 


This story appeared in the November 2017 issue of Portfolio magazine


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