Architecture and Design

How the Zaha Hadid-designed Morpheus hotel in Macau found solutions to an unusual set of challenges

The Morpheus hotel’s futuristic-looking design – which boasts the world’s first free-form exoskeleton – has carved out its own distinctive visual identity, while accommodating 780 ultra-luxurious hotel rooms and a VIP casino

PUBLISHED : Monday, 18 June, 2018, 7:31am
UPDATED : Monday, 18 June, 2018, 3:25pm

Is Morpheus, the late Dame Zaha Hadid’s only building in Macau, an example of the “weird” architecture that Chinese President Xi Jinping railed against in 2016?

The monolithic 40-storey structure, wrapped in a gleaming aluminium exoskeleton, shares the appearance of the grandiose architecture that so irked the Chinese leader.

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Yet closer examination reveals the hotel’s futuristic-looking design – which boasts a world-first, free-form exoskeleton – is a groundbreaking solution to an unusual set of challenges.

First, the site offered a relatively tight 6,850 square metre (74,000 square foot) rectangular building footprint, the last parcel of land to be developed within the City of Dreams entertainment complex on the Cotai Strip. Owned and developed by Melco Resorts & Entertainment, the urban resort comprises four other hotels, and a variety of luxury retail, entertainment venues and casinos.

The design is also a response to an existing condition. According to the Morpheus project architect and Zaha Hadid Architects (ZHA) associate director Viviana Muscettola, the new superstructure had to be adjusted to fit a site already with foundations, which had been intended for serviced apartments, designed by a different architectural firm.

Then there was the unexpected death in 2016 of Hadid, the Pritzker Prize-winning architect, two years before the completion of the Morpheus. It was one of 36 projects in 23 countries the company was working on when she died of a heart attack. The practice, now led by partner Patrik Schumacher, is behind several other Asian projects to be completed this year, including the Changsha Meixihu International Cultural Centre, the Nanjing Culture and Conference Centre/Jumeirah Hotel, and Leeza Soho, a skyscraper in Beijing with a tall, twisting atrium.

Morpheus, which opened on June 15, also reflects Melco CEO Lawrence Ho’s ambitious plan to create a novel premium luxury hotel to attract the increasingly sophisticated mainland visitor to Macau.

According to Muscettola, who joined ZHA in 2004, Hadid sometimes created two competing design teams to come up with the most innovative new designs. In this case, the teams helped explore the challenge of creating a distinctive building with structural support provided from the outside.

The Morpheus hotel is, however, notably different from much of the late Iraqi-British architect’s signature curvaceous, sculptural designs, such as the Jockey Club Innovation Tower in Hong Kong.

The winning design, which melds function with dramatic sculptural form, sees two towers wrapped – and supported – by an aluminium exoskeleton. The towers accommodate about 780 ultra-luxurious hotel rooms and a VIP casino, and functions via connections at the ground floor podium and rooftop, while skybridges create three distinctive visual “voids” or spaces.

The mesh-like exoskeleton curves around these skybridges, adding a surreal inside-outside experience of the restaurants and VIP lounge they house.

China is obsessed with luxury but most of the time it is completely over the top. I wanted to design something aspirational – hedonistic, but with a touch of restraint
Designer Peter Remedios

Taking on gravitational and lateral loads, the exoskeleton also significantly reduces the need for internal structural support, explains William Cornish, Melco vice-president for construction.

“The number of columns is greatly reduced, and this gives us more flexibility in space planning of the hotel facilities, and gives the interior designers less headaches. In the free-form area, there are no columns supporting the exoskeleton, and this creates large open-plan areas that we have used for the hotel lobby at ground level and other public areas at higher levels between the hotel towers.”

Two primary structural components support the building. Firstly, two reinforced concrete cores extend the full height of the structure. From these, the floor beams stretch to the perimeter of the building, passing over one intermediate supporting column. At the perimeter, the floor beams pass through the facade to connect with the exoskeleton.

The structural form between the two towers is extremely complicated, with three holes formed in response to the twists and turns of the exoskeleton – which not only supports itself but also the facade and the restaurants and club lounge that sit between the voids at level 21 and 30.

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At the ground level, guests enter via a 35-metre-high atrium lobby with walls and reception bristling with white and silver faceted marble, and decorated with Hadid’s sleek white Nekton stools. Twelve glass-clad lifts whisk guests upwards through the atrium and skybridges to Chinese fine-dining restaurant Yi, a VIP lounge decorated with sculptural Hadid-esque furniture, and a pair of cocktail bars in a minimalist, monochromatic palette.

The interiors of 770 guest rooms, three pool villas and six sky villas were done by California-based, Macau-born designer Peter Remedios. “China is obsessed with luxury but most of the time it is completely over the top,” Remedios notes. “I wanted to design something aspirational – hedonistic, but with a touch of restraint.”

The designer says he also wanted to maximise the dramatic form of the exoskeleton on view from the panoramic windows, and so adjusted the design of each room to reflect the form of the exoskeleton as it morphs across the facade of the building.

“The interior design aligns with the verticals but is sympathetic to the 30- to 60-degree orientation of the exoskeleton,” he says. For example, king-size beds in the suites are arranged on an axis with the vertical form of the exoskeleton. According to Remedios, the fluidity reflects the hedonistic aesthetic of a superyacht.

“We define hedonism as the pursuit of pleasure and the art of self-indulgence,” Remedios says. “In the rooms, the floor-to-ceiling bars, oversized, customised tubs, solid stone counters, walk-in, retail-style closets and lounging areas raise the experience to a hedonistic level. The large glass wall and huge electrically operated sliding wall between the bedroom and bathroom also capture this indulgence.”

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The three pool villas take up almost an entire level of the hotel, each coming with an indoor plunge pool and entertainment room, and a private study and library, as well as a personal gym and spa. There is also a rooftop sky pool, 130 metres above the ground.

“It is time for Macau to have a building of its own, not recreating something else or looking outside to copy some other city’s architectural style,” Muscettola says.

“Weird architecture” or not, the Morpheus has boldly carved out its own, distinctive visual identity.

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“The substructure of the abandoned previous design, which was in place before ZHA became involved in January 2012, had extensive inboard piling, which was difficult to coordinate with the new frame,” Muscettola says.

The solution was to modify the existing foundations, amending and extending them along the perimeter to fit the new shape and weight of the Morpheus.

The exoskeleton is made from structural steel plates, tubes and rolled sections bent or made to a specific shape by cutting and twisting plates and then welding them together in three-dimensional jigs made from templates extracted from a computer model produced by ZHA.

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Each member is connected at nodes made from structural steel plates welded together to form unique shapes at each connection point. The majority of the steel plates of different grades and thicknesses come from steel mills in China.

Most were then fabricated at shipbuilding factories in Guangdong, where workers were familiar with large, curved structures. To minimise welding on-site, the factory assembled one member with each node before transporting them by road. According to Cornish, the factory fabrication operated three to five floors ahead of erection on the site.

The construction process meant that the exoskeleton was erected ahead of the floor beams and concrete floors. Unlike most curtain wall facades, though, the Morpheus facade was designed to be erected from inside the building. Where the exoskeleton penetrates the facade, there are special panels that allow movement but maintain the weatherproofing.

The exoskeleton is coated in two protective layers, including a corrosion protection coating and an epoxy fire protection. Cleaning and maintaining the outside of the building involves gaining high-level access via a combination of traditional cradle access and rope access. The cradle covers the cleaning of the exoskeleton, and the rope access allows access to every inch of the facade. For instance, in the three large voids, there are opening hatches that allow the workers to enter from the top of the hole and exit at the bottom.

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The aluminium over-cladding is highly engineered to the exact geometry designed by ZHA. The panels are coated with a colour-stable paint system that is baked on and binds to the surface.

The total project investment for the Morpheus was US$1.1 billion.