Capella Sydney transforms an iconic listed building in the heart of Sydney into a world-class 5-star hotel. The first Australian property for the Capella Hotel Group, the former government building now welcomes the public in for the first time.
- Location Sydney/Gadigal Country, Australia
- Status Built
- Service Architecture
- Sectors Hospitality, Heritage, Retrofit
- Area 18,500m²/199,400ft²
- Client Pontiac Land Group
Originally designed by renowned Scottish-Australian architect George McRae (Sydney Town Hall, the Queen Victoria Building) for the New South Wales government, the listed building on this site dates back to 1912 and was constructed in 2 halves approximately 15 years apart: the northern half for the Department of Education, the southern half for the Department of Agriculture. Located 400m from Sydney Harbour and taking up an entire block in the CBD, the building features an Edwardian Baroque-style sandstone facade and stands as a reminder of Sydney’s grand architectural heritage, which endures alongside surrounding skyscrapers.
Our brief was to retain as much of the original heritage fabric as possible while transforming the building into a world-class luxury hotel, setting a new benchmark for hospitality in Australia with the Capella Hotel Group’s first Australian offer. In collaboration with Aspect Studios, we’ve also transformed the adjacent Farrer Place outside the front entrance with new paving, greenery and seating that re-establishes it as a pivotal city square and engages the site with the wider city. BAR Studio delivered the interior design, which embraces the existing built fabric while creating a counterpoint to the once-utilitarian interiors.
Taking the 8-storey structure to 11 storeys, we’ve replaced existing rooftop additions with an extension that features bespoke fluted fins and curved glass corners, which we’ve set back to celebrate the sandstone facade. Inside we’ve reconfigured and consolidated the 2 halves of the building to improve circulation and designed 192 grandly proportioned guest rooms, starting at 40m² and culminating in the 235m² Capella Suite. We located the pool and wellness and spa facilities on level 6, beneath heritage roof lanterns that draw in natural light, and we opened up the ground floor with publicly accessible new event and meeting spaces, plus three food and beverage venues.
We worked with heritage consultant Urbis to understand the history of the site and building, ensuring all areas of exceptional heritage significance were restored or retained, such as the sandstone facades, and any intrusive or detrimental interventions were removed. This work was fundamental to achieving a complementary refurbishment and extension that respects the integrity of McRae’s original design. Preserving and celebrating the heritage was important to us, but doing so in a manner that avoided pastiche design details or tried to replicate the existing fabric was fundamental to our approach.
Because the building was built in two halves, the facades were constructed differently: the northern facade is load-bearing, and the southern facade is purely decorative, with a load-bearing steel frame behind. While the shift between the north and south is undetectable from the outside, 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.
While we celebrated the existing building and original details as much as possible, we also introduced contemporary interventions to both elevate the guest experience and ensure longevity for the building.
Restoring and upgrading the heritage marble staircases was a particular challenge. The existing wrought iron balustrades were too low in height, and most of the marble stair treads were warped from years of use, making both noncompliant with today’s building code. We worked closely with the contractor team and expert stonemasons to design new marble inserts for the stair, with beautiful contrasting nosings, brass trims and a glass balustrade. We ensured the geometry and rhythm of these additions harmonised with the existing structures, and we brought the detail of the historic metal scrollwork to the forefront in a respectful, seamless way that achieves functionality while maintaining historical integrity.
The hotel won top honours at the 2023 AHEAD Asia Awards in three categories, including Best Conversion, Lobby and the coveted Hotel of the Year. The judging panel commended the design for its “expert transitions between new and existing architecture,” which work together to create “a reimagined sequence of spaces that delight.”
The 4-storey modern extension responds to and expands on the listed structure beneath. We treated it as secondary to the original building both in terms of massing and design, setting it back and wrapping it in bespoke fluted anodised metal fins and curved glass corner details that complement the heritage architecture. These new floors house larger guestroom suites – notably different to those in the heritage portion owing to the change in ceiling height and windows – but still maintain the design identity of the hotel as a whole.
The roof design was integral to the overall scheme, especially as it can be seen from neighbouring tall buildings. We included bespoke cladding and fish-scale perforated screens that nod to the heritage metalwork details at Farrer Place and conceal the roof plant and services, allowing the building to be read from above, just as it is from the street.