Breathing new life into heritage buildings is nothing new for Foster + Partners, but Hong Kong's Murray Building in Central offered an unusual opportunity – the chance to talk things over with the original architect, Ron Phillips. What's more, Phillips, now aged 90, was way ahead of the game in terms of sustainable and energy-efficient design when he conceived the Murray Building in 1969.
Phillips was working in Hong Kong's Architectural Services Department when he was handed the brief for a 27-storey government office block on Cotton Tree Drive. When it was built, it was the tallest building in Hong Kong: its distinctive arches at ground level, deep square-punched windows and brilliant white facade made it an immediate landmark.
Air-conditioning had already become commonplace in office blocks but, while mindful of cost, Phillips saw an opportunity to design a building that reduced solar gain. He achieved this through a series of concrete blade walls at 45 degrees to the plane of elevation and 90 degrees to the windows. This meant the sun hit the walls and not the glass, resulting in a building less prone to solar heating.
"Way before sustainability was on anyone's radar, Ron said he was aware that Hong Kong has a hot climate, so should be designing buildings that respond to that," says Colin Ward, a partner at Fosters + Partners.
As he speaks, Ward looks out of his Lippo Centre office and across the swathe of glass buildings in Central. "Glass buildings heat up and we have to spend huge amounts of money cooling them down – and yet we are still building them. It's insanity. We are advocates for not building this way; Ron brilliantly and pioneeringly did this 50 years ago," he adds.
Ward was the lead architect on the redevelopment project to turn the landmark government office block into a luxury hotel. In January this year it opened as The Murray, Hong Kong, a 336-room Niccolo Hotel. This is a transformation that will have an impact not just upon the hotel's guests, but all Hongkongers who frequent Central, because it opens up the area. "It was quite a locked-away building, quite hostile and inhospitable to anyone who went there. You entered the building by car and went up a ramp, the lower levels were all car park," he says.
The redesign does away with that fortress-like feeling, opening up the building and introducing a lot of greenery. "We reworked the lower and upper ground planes and introduced a series of terraces and gardens at the lower levels," says Ward. "The whole thing is now very public. We were keen to make it an inclusive part of the city." Foster + Partners was behind the £100-million makeover of the Great Court at the British Museum in 2000, transforming the inner courtyard into the largest covered public square in Europe. The redesign knitted together pedestrian spaces, making the whole area much more accessible. "You don't need to go into the museum, you can just walk through and have a coffee. It's a way of demystifying the ivory tower feeling you might get from a museum. And we wanted to do the same with The Murray hotel," says Ward.
There's a bar at ground level, and the ground floor and lower levels of the hotel are open to everyone. Guests, visitors and passers-by can now stroll past a heritage tree – one of the kapoks from which Cotton Tree Drive takes its name. The interiors incorporate plenty of stone, wood, stainless steel, leather and glass – what Ward describes as "honest materials put together in a simple way, but with depth". He believes this reflects not only the design studio's ethos but also the character of the city.
"Hong Kong and Hongkongers have a real strength – a strength of clarity of thought and a hard work ethic – and the city reflects that in all sorts of ways, including in the architecture. We wanted to build into that using honest materials in an expressive way."
Though The Murray was once the tallest building in Central, Citibank, the Bank of China and other buildings now look down upon it. Taking this into account, a roof terrace was designed as a continuation of the green landscape, connecting Hong Kong Park and the Zoological & Botanical Gardens. And a transparent glass pavilion on the roof terrace – with a cafe and bar – makes the most of the views.
This is an excerpt from “Building History", an article from the March issue of Perspective magazine.
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