Capella Sydney, Sydney, Australia

Posted in Projects on 23 May, 2023

An historic slumbering beauty has reawakened after a seven-year restoration project.

A grand State Heritage-listed building that forms part of Sydney’s historic Sandstone Precinct reopened in March as the five-star Capella Sydney hotel, the first Australian property from luxury hospitality brand Capella Hotels and Resorts.

Pontiac Land Group appointed Make Architects to restore and remodel the Edwardian baroque-style building that formerly housed the Department of Education. This included opening the ground floor to be fully accessible to the public for the first time. BAR Studio designed the refined new interiors throughout the hotel.

The design team worked closely with consultants and stakeholders, including Heritage NSW and the City of Sydney, to reveal the original character of the protected building, which dates from 1912 and was designed by government architect George McRae. The grandeur of McRae’s architecture, with its Florentine Palazzo-style sandstone facade and marble-clad vestibules, lends itself to a future role as a leading hotel.

Capella Sydney, Australia. Above: Brasserie 1930. Top: all existing facades have been retained and restored. Both images (c)Tim Kaye

Originally built in two halves, the former eight-storey building occupies an entire city block. Its reconfiguration has been a major undertaking, especially because the integrity of many internal spaces had been compromised over the years by ad hoc changes to the building’s fabric.

McRae’s original design intent has been restored wherever possible, including the reinstatement of its internal garden courtyard, now named Aperture, on the ground floor. The surrounding spaces have been imaginatively repurposed for new uses, such as a variety of publicly accessible restaurants and bars, and meeting and function rooms.

Meanwhile, The Living Room, a signature space of all Capella properties, is a private ground-floor retreat for in-houseguests. It’s also the place where the hotel’s culture and experience programmes are devised and facilitated by ‘culturists’ who are on-hand to shape the guest experience from pre-arrival to departure.

Clockwise from top left: Bespoke art installation Meadow by Studio Drift acts as a kinetic focal point on the ground level; Brasseries 1930 features hand-painted murals by Gumbaynggirr Bundjalung artist Otis Carey; Living room; Stitching new columns and slabs with the existing structure across all levels created double height spaces on the ground floor. All images (c)Tim Kaye

The former Department of Education’s gallery on level six has been preserved and transformed into the award-winning Auriga Spa, with a stunning 20m swimming pool, fitness suite and private treatment rooms. The space is top-lit with copper-lined heritage roof lanterns that have been restored and reimagined to draw in and diffuse the daylight. Innovative engineering was required to insert the pool into the existing structure.

Four additional floors have been added to the building, taking it to 11 storeys. This complementary modern extension, with bespoke fluted fins and curved glass corners, is set back to respect the original sandstone structure. There are 192 guestrooms across the heritage and extension levels. In the original building, rooms were designed to showcase existing window proportions and minimise impact to the original structure while incorporating modern amenities.

The extension levels presented Make with an opportunity to reimagine the roofscape. Designed as a fifth elevation, it now makes a positive contribution to the cityscape for those occupying high-rise buildings neighbouring the hotel. Bespoke perforated screens and fluted cladding conceal the plant and services on the roof.

Clockwise from top: Inserting a swimming pool and independent support structure on the sixth floor was a engineering challenge. Image (c) Capella Sydney; The design signature of bold portals carries through to the guest rooms. Image (c)Tim Kaye; Guided by Freeman Ryan Design the restored brass directory boards have been creatively reused as framing for public artwork by First Nations artist Judy Watson

The interiors by BAR Studio embrace the existing built fabric and create a counterpoint to the once-utilitarian interiors. The design narrative responds to the rationalism and functionality of the original architecture while weaving in design gestures that speak to the building’s era and origins, such as the use of black steel and steel-framed glazed screens and doors that make a subtle reference to the age of industry. A recurring motif of timber or metal-framed portals plays an important role in the definition of spaces, finishes, art and objects.

A neutral base palette of warm grey stone and dark and light timber takes its cue from the building’s original architecture and design elements while creating a sense of a soothing urban sanctuary. Era-inspired design features, such as the black and white marble floors, antique mirrors, and the introduction of contemporary arches throughout the drinking and dining spaces, are a modern take on the elegance and glamour of the time.

The design signature of bold portals carries through to the guestrooms where dark wood and metal frame elements of the existing building and create zones within rooms. Campaign furniture – rooted in the need for flexible travel pieces in bygone days – has inspired freestanding wardrobes and minibars, as well as an integrated leather screen.

Externally, the hotel now creates a natural connection between the street at Farrer Place and Capella Sydney’s skylit inner courtyard. The team designed an arrival sequence that welcomes the public from existing to new, further strengthened by the curation of public art and heritage interpretation between spaces. Art curation by Freeman Ryan Design and The Artling brings an extra layer of storytelling, with works exhibited throughout the hotel’s public spaces as a way to share the area’s rich heritage.

Inspired by McRae’s original concept drawings which showed a rectangular garden at the heart of the plan. Image (c)Tim Kaye

Back-of-house facilities are accommodated across three new basement levels, reducing the impact on the heritage fabric above ground. These underground service levels have been strategically planned to operate for both this building and the neighbouring Lands Building and provide energy efficiencies while minimising the precinct’s carbon footprint.

“We’re proud to be involved in this once-in-a-generation project for the city,” said Michelle Evans, project architect, Make. “Opening the building up to the public was key to the design vision. On the ground floor, we designed the arrival sequence to play with scale and invite the public into the previously inaccessible building, taking guests from the beautifully restored heritage entrance at Farrer Place through to the double-height reception evoking the openness of the original atrium.”

The arrival experience is heightened by the integration of acquired and commissioned art. The ground-floor collection includes works by the likes of Australian artists Judy Watson, Otis Hope Carey, Elise Cakebread and Georgia Bisley, culminating with a large robotic lighting installation by Dutch art duo DRIFT. Titled Meadow, the installation is suspended in the hotel’s central gathering space. This voluminous lounge area, now known as Aperture, occupies the original courtyard of the old building – the fulcrum from which all the hotel’s amenities are accessed. This includes two other drink-and-dine venues, Brasserie 1930 and McRae Bar.

Stewart Robertson, co-founder and creative director, BAR Studio, said: “The heritage building that houses Capella Sydney provided us with the underpinning and inspiration for the interior design. Evolving from the continuity of space on the ground floor – linking the urban landscape of Farrer Place to the internal garden courtyard – we’ve used framing techniques to both connect and create a sensitive separation of public spaces. Throughout the whole hotel, frames, arches and portals, together with the layered design, aim to create a space that feels like it has always been here and evolved over time, but is at once fresh and modern.”

Marc von Arnim, Capella Sydney’s general manager, said: “The Capella brand is synonymous with luxury, excellence in the craft of hospitality, and cultural immersion. Capella Sydney takes this to the next level through unparalleled heritage work, architecture and interior design, state-of-the-art wellness facilities, and transformative guest experiences that go above and beyond the expected, underscored by world-class accommodation and dining.”

Balancing storied architectural features with a contemporary design aesthetic, Capella Sydney celebrates the Australian panorama through its interiors, location and experiences. Original characteristics are celebrated throughout the hotel, with reimagined interiors unfurling to reveal commissioned and collected artworks, sophisticated furnishings, and intriguing objet d’art – all within footsteps of the glistening harbour foreshore, the famed Sydney Opera House and Harbour Bridge.

Owner: Pontiac Land Group
Operator: Capella Hotels and Resorts
Keys 192
Architect: Make Architects
Interior design: Bar Studio






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