New Life for a Modern Landmark: The Murray Building

The Murray Building after it was completed in 1969 (left) and a rendering of its conversion into a hotelThe Murray Building in 2011

Everything new becomes old – and everything old becomes new again. When the Murray Building was completed in 1969, it was part of the modernist revolution that had swept away the aesthetic excesses of the past. It was bold and rational, a fresh-faced counterpoint to the fusty Victorian structures that littered the slopes of the Peak.

Now it is considered historic. Work is underway to convert the 27-storey former government office block into a luxury hotel called The Murray. “The notion of Murray Building now being considered heritage makes me feel even more ancient,” says Ron Phillips, the building’s architect. “It is good that society has woken up to its heritage. It is only a shame that it did not do so somewhat sooner.”

Phillips is now 88 years old, living a second life as a painter in England, but he had only recently started his career when he moved to Hong Kong to take a job with the government’s Architectural Office in 1955. He and his wife had two young children and they had a third son two years after they arrived. “From the very start we enjoyed all the wonderful beaches, visiting the outlying islands and the simple pleasure of riding the ferry to Kowloon, which always fascinated us,” he says.

Phillips’s first assignment was to work on Hong Kong’s new City Hall and the Star Ferry car park. Plans had already been laid out for a multi-storey block with offices, a library, museum, art gallery, marriage registry, ballroom and banquet hall. Another wing would contain a concert hall and theatre. Phillips and his colleague, Alan Fitch, decided to bring as much natural light into the building as possible, so they covered the north and south façades of the tower with windows, leaving the east and west sides blank to “give the building a strong statement.”

“I come from the Bauhaus modernist doctrine which held that there should be no separation between architecture and the fine and applied arts,” says Phillips. Whereas previous generations of architects had relied on carvings, statues and murals to embellish their buildings, Phillips and his cohort believed that architecture was an art in itself, and that no form was more beautiful than that which was functional.

Phillips expanded on those when he began to work on the Murray Building. Located on a narrow plot of land in between Cotton Tree Drive and Garden Road, opposite the Peak Tram terminus, the building was meant to house the Public Works Department. The brief called for direct vehicular access, so Phillips mounted the building on arches that sheltered a slip road and carpark.

The next challenge was to keep out the sun. “The services engineer was most anxious to restrict the direct entry of sunlight,” says Phillips, so he came up with a sustainable, energy-saving solution that proved well ahead of its time: he covered the building in angled fins that sheltered the interior from the sun, reducing the need for air conditioning. “It was a pioneering attempt to produce this sustainable building 30 years before anybody else was thinking about it,” says Foster + Partners architect Colin Ward, who is overseeing the building’s conversion into a hotel. “It was way ahead of its time in terms of building in Hong Kong.”

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Car park at the Murray Building in the 1960s

Both the arches and the fins were practical responses to the project’s conditions, but they had the effect of giving the tower a rather distinctive appearance. Like City Hall, the Murray Building is assertive yet airy; a breezy tropical take on modernism. “Many of the office buildings in Hong Kong have this mirrored glass, they’re all impermeable and you can’t see inside,” says Ward. “This one had these big punched windows that were open, yet there were also these protective concrete blade walls too.”

Most of Ward’s work involves converting the Murray Building’s offices into hotel rooms, but it will involve a few outward changes, too. The vehicular space at the building’s base will be filled with trees and a swimming pool, and a bar will be added to the roof. One of the biggest alterations has to do with the windows, which are being enlarged from floor to ceiling. “I always wanted this in the original design, but bearing in mind the accommodation was for offices to have done so then would have inhibited the layout of office furniture,” says Phillips.

Ward seems impressed by Phillips. “He’s a fabulous guy,” he says. “He should be in a James Bond movie or something – he has this fantastic 60s swagger to him.” Phillips, for his part, is equally enthused by the hotel project, especially given the fate of many other Hong Kong landmarks. Phillips moved away from Hong Kong in 1970, but he has been back to visit many times, and he was dismayed to see how the area surrounding City Hall has been ravaged.

“I thought the relocation of the Central Star Ferry a disaster,” he says. “Its original location for pedestrians and vehicles was a direct link to the Central district, and together with Statue Square, Edinburgh Place with all the surrounding buildings it generated a hub for the city.” He was particularly sad to see the plaza between City Hall and Queen’s Pier replaced by a new roadway that cuts access off to the waterfront. “Alas, the only constant in life is change, but one hopes that it does not come about without due regard for what’s gone on before,” he says.

The Murray Building’s namesake, an 1844 military structure that stood at the foot of Cotton Tree Drive, was dismantled brick by brick in 1982 to make way for the Bank of China Tower. It was rebuilt in the early 2000s on the Stanley waterfront in a controversial move that resulted in it being stripped of its Grade I heritage status, since it was determined that the change in location had stripped the building of its historical value.

The Murray Building will luckily escape such a fate. Ward says the hotel will not only give Phillips’ structure a new sheen, it will open it up to the public for the first time. “We’ve tried to thread some extra public routes within the site, so if you are walking past it you wouldn’t feel bang up against these angry roads,” he says. “It will be a much more integrated piece of Hong Kong.”

Ward hopes people passing through the building will notice it in a way they never have before, especially since the renovation will remove some of the carpark structures that occupy the ground level. “It will open up the arches and liberate them from this big concrete deck, give them the chance to stand tall and proud the way they were always meant to,” he says. “We’re giving them the respect that they deserve.” A second life for a novel old building.

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