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With its glazed podium, signature restaurant and bars, the refurbished Hilton Sydney not only has loads of street appeal, it also enjoys a strong connection with the inner city

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In the 1970s, many city hotels were designed with a fortress-like mentality. Solid, bland podiums fronted the street, as the hotels turned in on themselves. And while this created a private haven for guests, it did nothing to help such hotels interact with the city or capture the attention of passers-by.

The five-star Hilton Sydney was a typical example. Architect Paul van Ratingen of Johnson Pilton Walker, the company that won the commission to re-design the hotel, says the existing podium building was like a shoe box.

"On George Street, it presented blank, inactive and impenetrable street frontages, which gave no hint of what was happening inside," he says. "Not surprisingly, there was no natural light in the lobby, the internal arrangement was complex and disorientating; and there was no visual reference to its location within the bustle of Sydney's CBD. The entire front of house may well have been entombed in the basement."

On Pitt Street, degraded entrances to the hotel and commercial offices were set back behind a maze of vehicle ramps that created a dark void across the entire street frontage.

Van Ratingen says the team saw at the very beginning that there was a tremendous potential to completely transform the existing building into an exciting major new development, reconnected to the city with a sequence of clear, concise and dramatic spaces.

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"We had a very strong belief in the site," he says. "It's a core civic area with a wonderful stock of old sandstone, heritage buildings, including the historic Queen Victoria Building (QVB) opposite.

"The existing iconic and elegantly proportioned Hilton tower was sympathetically reclad and a new glazed mid-tower office extension provided on Pitt Street – its simple, slab-block construction is a rational form that works well."

Van Ratingen says the key design concept for the remodelling was the need to reconnect the building and hotel functions with the city. Opening up the hotel to the streets on both sides, and introducing plenty of natural light was fundamental.

To achieve this, the existing podium was partially demolished – leaving the existing tower floating 20m clear above the ground level. This created a sequence of grand and dramatic sun-filled public spaces.

"We reinstated the notion of the original Italianate Royal Arcade as a new lane linking Pitt Street through to George Street, incorporating an external hotel drop-off in the heart of the site," says Ratingen. "This brings plenty of natural light into the building. We also created a vertical garden on a wall along one side of the lane."

The new hotel arrangement is very simple; restaurants an bars overlook George street, and the large ballroom and extensive new convention facilities, which can accommodate up to 3000 delegates, overlook Pitt street. Circulation occurs between, within the light and airy lobby.

The podium accommodates Glass, a new signature restaurant, and the new Zeta bar, both designed by celebrated New York restaurant designer Tony Chi.

"We purposefully articulated the George Street building away from the tower so it would have its own identity," says Ratingen. "The restaurant and bar needed to be seen as destinations in their own right."

The glass walls of the podium flood the interior with natural light and provide spectacular views over the historic QVB – a building that influenced the new materials for the hotel. Oval sandstone columns on the podium reinforce a strong visual link between the two landmarks.

The glass facades also create a transparency that brings the hotel to life, says Ratingen.

"Both the activity in the street and that generated within the hotel animate the building and provide the sense of connection that was previously missing. Inside the lobby, cantilevered floors, bridges, stairs and escalators enliven the space, exposing interesting vistas and creating opportunities for people watching."

While a sense of grandeur defines the lobby, it has also been designed to impart an intimacy. Interior designer Joseph Pang says the decor needed to complement the very clean architectural lines of the space, but it also had to acknowledge the hotel's iconic status.

"It was important that the decor fitted with the overall concept of glamour, but we didn't want the interior to be too intimidating," he says. "There had to be a balance, so that people wouldn't feel overwhelmed by the space.

"This was achieved by creating little pockets of seating. We capitalised on the columns, using these to break up the space into small segments. Sculptural furniture and bright splashes of colour also add to the sense of drama. We deliberately avoided using too many competing elements, and kept a lot of the surfaces light and simple to express the natural beauty of the materials."

The new restaurant also provides a sense of theatre. At 660m2, the 234-seat Glass lives up to its name, with the expansive areas of glass giving a feeling of space and providing a window onto some of Sydney's classic downtown architecture.

"It provides a true reflection of Sydney – both literally and figuratively – in both its style and ambience," says designer Tony Chi.

"By night, with the dramatically lit QVB as a partial backdrop, the lighting is a gentle glow, with the glitter and drama of the restaurant and the city itself creating a sophisticated look," says Chi.

In keeping with the transparency evident elsewhere in the hotel, the kitchen and chefs are on display at all times.

Other new facilities at the Hilton include a large spa, with a 25m-long pool and gymnasium. The leased office facilities and all 577 guest rooms have also been completely refurbished.

The design emphasis in the luxury Relaxation guest rooms is on relaxation and indulgence. Neutral colour palettes, leather furniture, wood floors and state-of-the-art bathroom facilities reinforce the luxury evident elsewhere in the hotel.

First published date: 12 April 2006

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Credit List

Location Hilton Sydney and Capital Centre (Sydney, NSW)
Architect Johnson Pilton
Walker; director Paul van Ratingen, RAIA
Interior designer (front of house) Chhada Siembieda
Australia; principal project designer Joseph Pang (now with Joseph Pang Design
Consultants); team members James Lee, Janice Beard, Anna Maria, Margo Warre, Allison
Green; project administrator Michael Watson
Interior designer (restaurant and bar) Tony Chi &
Associates; principal Tony
Chi; stylist William
Paley; senior associate and lighting principal David
Singer; project manager Jefferson
Lam; project management Stewart Robertson, Barstudio Architect Living Well Health
Club Brewster Hjorth Architects
Heritage architect Brian McDonald & Associates/Noel Bell Ridley Smith
Landscape architect Johnson Pilton Walker
Signage consultant EKH Design
Main contractor Leighton Contractors
Quantity surveyor Page Kirkland Partnership
Project manager Page Kirkland Management
Structural engineer Connell Mott MacDonald
Facade engineer Hyder Consulting
Mechanical engineer Bassett Consulting
Electrical/lift/security engineer Norman Disney & Young
Hydraulic/fire engineer LHO Group
Fire engineer Arup Fire
Traffic engineer Colston Budd Hunt & Kates
Acoustic engineer Acoustic Logic Certifier/BC
A consultant Phillip Chun & Associates
Food and beverage consultant MTD Group
Specialist lighting engineer Webb Australia Group
Audiovisual engineer Vision Design Studio
Tower facade Fibre cement sheet painted; glass curtain wall by JML Group/LCPL
Podium facade Glass facades by JML Group/LCPL; sandstone by Exclusive Stone/Bondi Stone
Restaurant and bar fit-out contractor RSF Commercial Interiors
Doors Titan Doors
Joinery UTJ/Karisma
Glass balustrades Feenix
Internal glazing Aussie Glass
Paving and tiling Austral Verde granite/Loretto limestone/Exclusive Stone
Escalators and lifts Otis
Structural steel Ahaust
Plasterboard linings Southern Star
Fire services Premier Fire Services
Electrical/lighting John Goss Projects
Heating/air conditioning Hastie Australia
Hydraulic services Nisbet & Durney
Swimming pool and spa Nisbet & Durney
Operable walls Rintoul
Carpet in public areas Brinton
Area rugs Designer Rugs
Stone supplier (public areas) Exclusive Stone, Quarella
Sculptor (reception) Bronwyn Oliver
Artist (restaurant) Judith White
Guest room joinery Interior Joinery & Furniture
Guest room lighting Euroluce; JSB Lighting
Bathroom fittings Caroma; Meco
Bath Bright Water Bathware
Bathroom tiles Skheme
Leather supplier Contemporary Leathers