Checking In: The Murray, Hong Kong

In the heart of Hong Kong’s business district, a landmark former office building now stands as the city’s sleekest new hotel.

Deep square-punched windows defined much of the Murray Building’s original design.

Even with brand-new hotels popping up all the time, heritage structures converted for use as accommodation can exert an allure all their own. In China alone you can relive Beijing’s imperial past at Aman Summer Palace, where courtiers once waited for an audience with the Empress Dowager Cixi; stay in a Mao-era sugar mill at Alila Yangshuo in Guilin; or steep yourself in the romance of early 20th-century Shanghai amid the revamped shikumen villas of that city’s Capella resort. And for anyone who’s ever secretly dreamed of life as a paper-pushing bureaucrat of the late 20th century, Hong Kong now has just the place.

This is perhaps a tad unfair, because The Murray—officially The Murray, Hong Kong, a Niccolo Hotel—is as stylish and unstuffy as can be. But it does illustrate just how unlikely—and bold—a reinvention this is. The 336-room hotel occupies the former Murray Building, a 1969-built modernist office tower that once housed the bulk of Hong Kong’s key government departments. Sold to the Wharf Group in 2011, it has since been transformed by the group’s hotel management subsidiary Wharf Hotels to the tune of US$1 billion. The Murray debuted on January 15 as the flagship property of Wharf’s nascent Niccolo Hotels brand, and as the first new property of its class to open in Hong Kong’s Central district in about a decade.

Now a hotel, The Murray features 336 residential-style guest rooms.

As if the stakes weren’t high enough, the restoration of the building—perhaps inevitably, given its past incarnation—also had to navigate the always-complex web of Hong Kong politics. The Murray Building was one of eight sites identified in the government’s Conserving Central initiative, unveiled in 2009 to protect or breathe new life into notable architecture and heritage in a district with some of the most valuable real estate (and some of the most rapacious developers) on the planet. There were disputes over whether it should be slated for government or private ownership; the decision in 2010 to lease it to the private sector proved controversial.

Overall, the results of Conserving Central have been decidedly mixed, with restoration plans for high-profile sites like the Central Police Station Compound and badly aging Central Market beset by delays or barely off the ground. Small wonder, then, that at The Murray’s completion ceremony last December, a visibly relieved Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam—an early champion of Conserving Central who had worked in the building at various stages during her long civil service career—hailed the project for fully realizing “the beauty and potential of this wonderful building,” and for being driven by passion as much as profit.

A reception desk.

Even from the outside, it’s quickly apparent the building is something special. Its ivory facade is punched with deep recesses that set the windows at sharp angles, a feature that the original architect Ron Phillips—an Englishman who had worked at the government’s Architectural Services Department since 1955—introduced to shield the interior from the blazing tropical light of Hong Kong’s lengthy summers. This made the building a forerunner of sustainable design, and indeed it was granted an energy efficiency award in 1994—though Phillips has commented that, judging by the gleaming, highly reflective towers that have sprung up around it, few developers since seem to have absorbed the lesson.

The 27-story structure is located somewhat awkwardly on a steep incline that links Hong Kong’s iconic harbor with the residential area of Mid-Levels. Phillips stabilized the building and opened its undercarriage to vehicle traffic by propping it up on a series of sweeping arches that are another defining feature. Sadly, relatively few people got up close enough to appreciate any of this; as a government site it was largely blocked off to pedestrians for security reasons. This effectively created an impenetrable “island” between two of the city’s largest central green spaces, Hong Kong Park and the Botanical Gardens.

The hotel’s lobby-level bar, Murray Lane.

Given its quasi-heritage status, the conversion of the Murray Building into a hotel was required to not only preserve its key architectural features, but also to end its self-imposed isolation and forge new connections with the surrounding neighborhood—not to mention leave an OVT (“old and valuable tree,” for those unfamiliar with Hong Kong bureaucratic parlance) in the forecourt of the main entrance unscathed. One of the first decisions by the architecture firm tasked with the overhaul, Foster & Partners, was to consult with Phillips, now a sprightly 90 years old, on its plans. “We spent a lot of time talking with him and showing him our ideas,” says Hong Kong–based partner Colin Ward. “His involvement was fascinating, enlightening, and a constant source of knowledge and insight.”

The resulting transformation is not just respectful of the original building’s architectural integrity and ingenuity, but in some ways improves on it. The car parks and dead spaces that surrounded the building have been replaced with a network of gardens and footpaths that link to nearby streets and walkways. The arches, formerly partially covered up, have been exposed to their full 11.5-meter height, creating wide, breezy portals that open onto neighborhood landmarks like St. John’s Cathedral, the oldest Anglican church in East Asia. The intent, according to Ward, was to “stitch [the building] back with the rest of the city” and “encourage pedestrian flow throughout the site … while creating a new green oasis.” In that, the architects have succeeded admirably.

A view of St. John’s Cathedral through the arches of a driveway turned events space.

Of course, this being a hotel, guests will likely place more weight on the interiors and amenities, and The Murray doesn’t disappoint on those fronts either. The openness fostered outside continues in the striking lobby and podium floors, where the windows all stretch floor to ceiling, and glass screens, rather than doors, divide spaces. Traces of the hotel’s former incarnation are still very visible but represent enhancements rather than encumbrances; the original’s eight elevator bays have been retained (a hotel this size would typically have half that); the former car ramp now serves as the lobby’s sloping ceiling; and the oddly angled windows create semi-private cubbyholes in each room, many with calming views of the cockatoos wheeling over the Botanic Gardens’ green canopy.

The design, heavy on clean lines, black and white, and subtle gold accents, is sleek and understated. Yet steps have also been taken to introduce homelike touches—including wooden floors and plush rugs—to the guest rooms, and to minimize the use of applied finishes, so that “all the materials are expressed honestly,” Ward notes. The overall result is sophistication that never tilts into pretension.

The Murray as seen from neighboring Hong Kong Park.

Even if you’re not a guest, there are plenty of reasons to make your way though the hotel’s signature arches. Murray Lane, the slick lobby bar, is already a favorite haunt of financiers from the office towers nearby; the airy Garden Lounge accepts guests for afternoon tea; and flagship restaurant Taipan serves accomplished, slightly Asian-influenced European cuisine alongside a carefully curated wine list in a sophisticated, lounge-like setting. In the coming months Guo Fu Lou, a Cantonese restaurant being designed by local luminary André Fu, and Popinjays, a rooftop bar, dining and all-around lifestyle destination, will be added to the mix.

In a city whose diminishing stock of historical structures are frequently razed or fought over, questionably repurposed or jealously guarded, arguably the most remarkable things about the Murray’s restoration are that it’s already got people looking forward, not back, and that it’s hard to imagine the building as anything but what it is now. It seems that for some lucky structures in Hong Kong, there really is such a thing as a second life.

The Murray, Hong Kong; 22 Cotton Tree Dr., Central; 852/3141-8888; doubles from US$460.

This article originally appeared in the April/May 2018 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Remaking The Murray”).

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