Following a recent stay at the Capella Hotel Sydney, est living editor Sophie Lewis speaks with Make Architects architectural designer Michelle Evans on leading this momentous seven-year project.

Located in Sydney’s historic Sandstone precinct, the Capella sets a new standard for hotel design and heritage transformation. The prestigious five-star hotel takes up residence in the former Department of Education, designed in 1912 by architect George McRae, overlooking Farrer Place on one side and with views to Sydney Harbour Bridge on the other. 

The state-listed landmark, which had been a working government office for many years, underwent a seven-year restoration and remodelling led by Make Architects’ Michelle Evans. Fortunate to experience the exceptional result, Sophie spoke to Michelle about the unique architectural challenges along the way and how she collaborated with BAR Studio on the considered detailing within. 

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The hotel’s grand entrance features restored brass directory boards reused as framing for public artwork. 

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New columns and slabs create double-height spaces on the hotel’s ground floor. 

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Bespoke art installation ‘Meadow’ by Studio Drift sets the serene tone on the hotel’s ground floor. 

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The Capella Hotel Sydney entrance features the original heritage doors. 

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This ground floor space reflects the original concept drawings for a rectangular garden at the heart of the plan.

The Edwardian Baroque-style sandstone building occupies an entire city block. Formerly eight storeys, it was constructed in two halves, meaning it had two different structural systems, which Michelle says added to the project’s complexity. “While there were these pockets of really amazing heritage fabric, like the stairs and the entrance lobbies, many of these had become disconnected,” Michelle says.

She describes Make Architects’ approach as stripping the building back to its bare bones, excavating three new levels of basement below, and adding new columns and slabs to the existing structure to allow for a contrasting four-storey extension above. All of the former office floors were transformed into guestrooms, and combined with the new extension, the building now comprises 11 storeys and 192 guestrooms.

Entering the hotel through the original doors, brass directory boards now frame works by Australian artist Judy Watson. Stepping into the double-height reception, the scale of the spaces increases dramatically. “Our interior architecture and BAR Studio’s interior design merge beautifully to create a memorable entrance sequence…a gentle interplay between heritage elements and new interventions,” Michelle says. The entrance sequence also allows you to feel as though you are completely removed from the hustle and bustle. “Hotels are all about the guest experience. At Capella, our focus was to create a sense of calm away from the busy city outside,” the architect adds.

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Pictured: Capella Hotel Sydney’s French restaurant Brasserie 1930, one of three different bar and restaurant offerings.

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Warm grey stone, antique mirrors and dark and light timber features throughout the hotel, inspired by the building’s heritage. Artwork in the public spaces has been curated by Freeman Ryan Design and The Artling.

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The Capella Hotel living room, where guests enjoy a ‘welcome drink’.

A central component to honouring architect George McRae’s original design intent was reinstating a Florentine palazzo-style courtyard at the heart of the hotel’s ground floor. The new courtyard interpretation is enclosed with a glass roof and features a focal artwork by Studio Drift that is suspended from the roof. Now a dining space called the Aperture, Studio Drift’s artwork sets the hotel’s serene tone with its gentle movement. “The atrium is the heart of the building in every sense, and the journey to it, which is welcoming and seamlessly merges old and new, establishes the identity of Capella Sydney,” Michelle says.

Leading the interiors throughout the hotel and into the guestrooms, BAR Studio set out to highlight the heritage features while creating an entirely contemporary experience. Black steel-framed doors, natural stone and timber call on the built fabric; the warm and textural palette enhancing the sense of sanctuary in each space. Metal-framed portals and arches are used as a device to make the spaces feel as if they have always been there and to help with ‘zoning’ the different areas of the rooms. 

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The design motif of metal framed ‘portals’ is explored in the private guest suites.

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Views of the Sydney Harbour Bridge from one of the Capella Hotel’s upper-level suites which feature floor-to-ceiling glazing.

The building’s level six was previously a dedicated art space. It features heritage roof lanterns that invite natural light from above, making it the perfect place for the hotel’s wellness offering: an indoor swimming pool, fitness area and spa treatment rooms. Inserting an indoor swimming pool with guest bedrooms below didn’t come without its challenges, Michelle says, crediting the structural engineering for the arresting outcome. “What I love about this space is the pool reflections, which change across the day and hint at the former use,” she says. “It encapsulates what this project is about – celebrating the origins of this grand building while transforming it into a luxurious place that can be enjoyed for years to come.” 

For Michelle, walking into the now-complete Capella Hotel Sydney is surreal – not to mention seeing other’s reaction to the transformed space. “Capella Sydney has been a very special project for Make, and we are excited to finally share it,” Michelle reflects, adding, “It was an emotional investment for all of us to achieve an end goal that we’re proud of and creates a legacy for generations to come.”

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The suites within the existing building celebrate the original window proportions, guiding the ‘classic meets contemporary’ interior aesthetic.

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The interiors make subtle reference to the ‘Age of Industry’.

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The Auriga Spa treatment rooms feature a series of interlocking cubes.

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Each spa treatment room features a heritage roof lantern above. Working with heritage consultant Urbis, Michelle retained and restored crucial heritage elements such as the roof lanterns, sandstone facade and previously hidden marble stairs, which were meticulously repaired and modernised for safety standards.

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The original roof lanterns illuminate the Auriga Spa indoor pool.

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What I love about this space is the pool reflections, which change across the day and hint at the former use,” Michelle says.

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Make Architects restored the building’s existing facades.

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