Relighting the City’s Skyline

The Refurb Route to Hotel Sky

A slight left of the Cape Town CBD’s main entrance, red rings rise up to the night sky, casting glances to what can only be deemed as no ordinary spire. Hotel Sky wasn’t always an illuminated and dynamic structure, though. It once accommodated the everyday office lives of the past three decades. By 2020, the esteemed building needed a new role to play in the city; it was time for a radical reinvention.

The Brief
The Metropolitan Life building had a run of 30 years of use before it outlived its original purpose as an office block. As with many skyscrapers, city centres continue to change and evolve, creating a need for buildings to keep up with their environment’s trajectory. When the time came for the redevelopment of the Metlife Centre, leading architecture firm Noero Architects was commissioned to reinvent the primely located structure to adapt to contemporary life.

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The Site
Originally designed by Cape Town architect Douglas Roberts, the Metlife Centre acted as a classic example of the local architecture of its time – the 1970s. The site offers the perfect location, with the Cape Town International Convention Centre on its doorstep. Situated in the Foreshore, the spot is also a stone’s throw away from the V&A Waterfront, forming part of the city’s central hub of happenings.

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The Inspiration
In line with today’s essential thinking around sustainable building practices, Noero Architects were interested in the possibility of finding a new use for the building without demolishing it. To achieve
this, they decided the hotel should be designed to offer a quality standard of accommodation at a reasonable cost, not only reviving the building but also potentially opening the Cape Town tourism
industry to many more visitors, particularly from across Africa.

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The Process
The design process began with the benefit that the existing building had a suitable structural grid of 8,4 metres, which offered multiple opportunities, all taken up with enthusiasm. Once the building and site were purchased, it was converted into a 550-bed hotel with various public spaces to offer comfort, entertainment, luxury, and convenience, all within one structure. Both the 8,4-metre structural grid and the prestressed concrete floor design represented significant challenges, particularly when it came to converting what were open plan offices into hotel bedrooms with attached services. Three bedrooms were fitted into the structural grid, affording the architects hotel rooms with a clear width of 2,2 metres. The difficulties presented by the prestressed floors were that all services needed to be threaded between the prestressed wires without cutting them. More than 18 000 cores were drilled through the floors to accommodate the service pipes in the 27 floors of the building. This required incredible accuracy on the part of the builders. 10% of the rooms comprised four double bunk beds providing eight people with sleeping space in one room, a popular option with large families as well as visiting sports teams.

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Particular attention was paid to the ground floor lobby area and the rooftop, which offers incredible views of the city and mountain. Two swimming pools were hung off the narrow-stepped side of the building with surrounding timber decks, and a forty-metre tower was placed on the roof, offering the Sky-Hi Ride – a feature unique to Hotel Sky. This exhilarating experience with priceless views of the city is open to the public, not only hotel guests, and has proven a very popular attraction to both tourists and locals for grabbing a glimpse of the view from the top.

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Also of special interest was the sophisticated use of pre-cast concrete panels and strip windows on the external façade, which influenced the decision to leave the original design largely untouched except for small opening windows added to the bedrooms to provide cross ventilation. Although adding to the functionality of the space, it caused no visual disruption to the original façade.

With construction commencing during the Covid lockdown, an array of conditions was attached to working on site during this period. However, despite the added complexity of the construction process, the undertaking of this repurposing elevated the city when it needed it most. By pressing the restart button, the Metropolitan Life building was transformed from a tired, bygone office block to an inspired hotel in the sky, acting as an excellent example of Jo Noero’s approach: ‘Each and every building can be improved over time.’

Photography by Paris Brummer

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