Luxury Hotels

How a pioneering Hong Kong architect made his mark with 1969 Murray Building, so green it puts newer neighbours in shade

The government office block was ahead of its time when Ron Phillips prioritised energy conservation in its design; now aged 90, he is returning to Hong Kong to see how his advice has guided its conversion into a hotel

PUBLISHED : Monday, 25 September, 2017, 6:17pm
UPDATED : Monday, 25 September, 2017, 10:25pm

An architect never forgets a seminal building he has created, but rarely would he expect to have a hand in its second coming nearly 50 years later.

Ron Phillips was working in Hong Kong’s Architectural Services Department in 1969 when he was tasked with designing the Murray Building, a 27-storey government office block in Central. Now aged 90, and living in retirement in Britain, he was invited by Foster + Partners in December 2013 to consult on its conversion into a 336-room luxury hotel.

Niccolo Hotels’ The Murray will mark the local debut of a new luxury brand under Wharf Hotels, which manages 15 properties in Hong Kong, China and the Philippines. It is scheduled to open by early 2018.

Back in the day, the passive design features Phillips incorporated to shield public servants from the harsh summer heat were considered innovative. Phillips, who lived and worked in Hong Kong from 1956 to 1969, had earlier been involved in the design of Hong Kong City Hall – together with friend, partner and fellow modernist architect Alan Fitch – and recalls that, at the outset, the brief to design an office block to accommodate all sub units of the Public Works Department seemed a straightforward exercise.

“But the more l looked into it – together with colleagues of the Building Services section – the more we saw an opportunity to respond to the question of energy conservation,” he says.

By then the introduction of air conditioning in multi-storey buildings had become the norm, but mindful of the substantial initial financial outlay, and recurrent cost, “we saw a need to respond to this by reducing solar gain”, Phillips says.

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In his favour was that, whereas the private sector at that time was – and still is, in Phillips’ view – primarily concerned with lettable floor area, a government project could be approached from an overall economic viewpoint. Any loss of floor space could be offset against the long-term savings in air conditioning and associated costs, he explains.

“Accepting this principle, I developed my design by combining the supporting structure and facade as one element formed by way of fins which were oriented on each face of the building to prevent direct sunlight entering. In so doing, the architecture for the bulk of the office accommodation was established.”

What Ron did 40 years ago is way more advanced than these buildings are today
Colin Ward

Colin Ward of Foster + Partners, lead architect of the redevelopment, regards this as a pioneering example of sustainable architecture in Hong Kong that was way ahead of its time. He was therefore keen to get Phillips on board for the conversion.

During the four years of planning, Phillips visited the London office of Foster + Partners many times and has been “an incredibly positive influence on the project and also a complete source of information and history”, Ward says.

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Those insights have also informed the conversion, done within the confines of a heritage overlay that required, for instance, that the building’s height not be altered, and original features such as the arches and vehicle ramps be retained.

Ward was particularly interested in the sustainability aspects, and remains perplexed that concepts so responsive to the Hong Kong climate have rarely been replicated, even today. His office in Central is “surrounded by glass towers” – vertical greenhouses baking in the sun – and he wonders why lessons have not been learned.

Despite the more recent advent of BEAM Plus (Hong Kong’s green building environmental standard) and a worldwide shift in attitudes making sustainable thinking mainstream, these often focus on active, rather than passive systems of energy conservation in new buildings, Ward notes. “What Ron did 40 years ago is way more advanced than these buildings are today.”

The geometry of the Murray Building’s facade is basically a series of strong concrete blade walls at 45 degrees to the plane of the elevation and 90 degrees to the glass windows.

“The clever thing that they did was to arrange the building so that the sun only hits the concrete walls, and never hits the glass,” Ward explains. As a solution, this was simple, elegant and “incredibly effective: the thermal load on the building is reduced so that you’re not trying to cool a greenhouse; you’re trying to cool a solid building”.

This also aligns with Foster + Partners’ architectural ethos, and thus set the groundwork for the redevelopment.

The clever thing that they did was to arrange the building so that the sun only hits the concrete walls, and never hits the glass
Colin Ward

“With The Murray we have tried to take a more holistic, sustainable approach and looked at how we can adaptively reuse a historic building in the most sensitive and appropriate way possible,” Ward says.

“Sustainability is, of course, about your lighting and air conditioning systems, but we also take a wider view that buildings are part of the urban and social fabric, and the responsibility is on us, the design team, to achieve that.”

The building was designed at a time when the city was planned around the car and is surrounded by roads, making it impermeable for pedestrians.

In the original design, the three-storey arches defining the facade were a solution to overcome the steep inclines limiting vehicular access to the site, between Garden Road and Cotton Tree Drive. As Phillips recalls: “This resulted in my developing a penetrable base for vehicular movement within the building enclave upon which the main building would sit. To this end, the adoption of structural arches was the most logical, effectively completing the total architectural concept.”

Today, says Ward, those “majestic arches” provide shade from sun, wind and rain, while offering elevated views of the surrounding gardens, St John’s Cathedral and adjacent high-rises.

The new design also aims to reconnect the building with the city at ground level, with a new frontage and open routes on Garden Road.

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Full-height glass cladding at the low levels of the building – protected from the sun by arches – visually opens the hotel to residents and passers-by. “We also have entrances to the hotel on each side, dissolving the barriers to the city and increasing transparency,” Ward says.

Inside, the lobby spaces are continuous and flow from one to the other with only handmade glass screens and material changes to denote borders, thereby further encouraging interactions. “The rooftop, too, has been designed as a transparent glass pavilion on a roof terrace with a bar and restaurant overlooking the city,” he adds.

Without compromising the existing, self-shading elevational window design, the team has used new, bigger, square and thermally superior windows for the conversion.

“We have also ‘re-greened’ the site, replacing the previous private concrete car park with an open, accessible series of gardens and outdoor event spaces,” Ward says.

He regards The Murray as the “missing piece of the green jigsaw” in an urban neighbourhood that is also home to Hong Kong Park and the Botanical Gardens. An impressive rainbow shower tree, listed on Hong Kong’s Old and Valuable Trees register, shades the outdoor dining area of the new hotel’s upper-ground-floor restaurants and is a centrepiece of gardens which offer a number of routes and spaces across and into the site.

“We want people to flow through the site, for [the hotel] not to be an island of exclusivity,” Ward says.

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The design is intended to express a sense of integrity, says Armstrong Yakubu, a partner at Foster + Partners in London, explaining why there are no applied finishes such as paint, but instead, wall surfaces covered with rare stones, leather and plush textiles, and white and black marble floors paired with polished metals and featuring a signature bronze-look stainless steel finish.

That my design should so readily respond to the needs of a hotel is quite amazing
Ron Phillips

Contrasts in handmade Italian crystal glass – used in the tea lounge and grill and as screens at the Garden Road entrance, along with upholstery fabrics from Italy and Asia – add an element of craftsmanship to the interior spaces. Each, Yakubu says, was carefully chosen to integrate with the holistic vision of the spaces.

“These features bring to the whole a degree of separation, but also provide reflections and elegance, and hints at the movement of people coming and going from the hotel.”

In its second coming, says Ward, The Murray will remain “a beacon of sustainable thinking in Hong Kong long past when others should have been taking up the mantle”.

Phillips hopes to be there for the opening.

“Of course I am delighted to know that after nearly 50 years, Murray Building is to have a new life, and more so that its design integrity is to be preserved,” he says. “That my design should so readily respond to the needs of a hotel is quite amazing and I look forward to seeing it once again for myself.”