Hotel Focus – Capella Sydney, Sydney

Make Architects repurposed the historic Edwardian Baroque-style Department of Education building into the luxurious Capella Sydney.

Words By Toby Maxwell

LOCATED 400m from Sydney Harbour, the heritage-listed former Department of Education building, part of the historic Sandstone Precinct, has reopened as the five-star Capella Sydney hotel, the first Australian property from hospitality brand Capella Hotels and Resorts.

At Capella Sydney, the bespoke art installation ‘Meadow’ by Studio Drift acts as a kinetic focal point on the ground level. Image Credit: Tim Kaye

Make Architects was appointed by Pontiac Land Group to restore and remodel this former Edwardian Baroquestyle governmental landmark for new uses, significantly opening the ground floor to be fully accessible to the public for the first time, with BAR Studio designing the 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, has been preserved for a leading role in the building’s new purpose.

Capella Sydney’s Brasserie 1930. Image Credit: Tim Kaye

With 192 guest rooms, event spaces, and three different bar and restaurant offerings, Capella Sydney forms a landmark home that is connected to the life of the city centre. Originally built in two halves over a century ago, the former eight-storey building occupies an entire city block. Its reconfiguration has been a major undertaking, especially as the integrity of many internal spaces has been compromised over the years by ad hoc changes made 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 repurposed for new uses, such as a variety of publicly accessible restaurants and bars, and meeting and function rooms.

Capella Sydney’s interiors make a subtle reference to the Age of Industry. Image Credit: Tim Kaye

The former Department of Education’s gallery on the sixth floor has been preserved and transformed into the Auriga Spa, featuring a 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 into this well-being space.

Four additional floors have also been added to the building, taking it to 11 storeys. The modern extension, with bespoke fluted fins and curved glass corners, has been set back to respect the original sandstone structure. A variety of guest room offerings have been designed across both the heritage and extension levels. In the existing building, rooms are designed to showcase the existing window proportions and minimise impact to the original structure while ensuring modern amenities are incorporated.

Each spa treatment room sits under a heritage roof lantern. Image Credit: Tim Kaye

The interiors by BAR Studio embrace the existing built fabric and create a counterpoint to the once-utilitarian interiors. The design aims to connect with the rationalism and functionality of the original architecture while weaving in design gestures that speak to the buildings’ era and origins, like 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 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 floor, antique mirrors and introduction of contemporary arches throughout the drinking and dining spaces, are intended as a modern take on the elegance and glamour of the time.

The design signature of bold portals carries through to the guest rooms, with dark wood and metal framing elements of the existing building as well as ‘zoning’ the different areas of the 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.

Stewart Robertson, co-founder and creative director of BAR Studio, says: ‘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.’  /

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