Zaha Hadid Architects | Prestige Hong Kong (Aug 18)


There’s a new building in Macau. Yes, it contains
a casino. No, it’s unlike anything ever built before. zaneta cheng reports

How do you solve a problem like Macau? Asia’s mecca to those courting Lady Luck, the city’s casinos bring to mind garish warehouses replete with flashing neon lights, crowded gaming tables and machines blaring electronic notes for hordes of gambling ghouls who peer blearily at their cards or press buttons with bated breath, oblivious to whether it’s night or day.

The gaming industry has been a cash cow for the special administrative region, turning the once sleepy town into a heaving tourism magnet that welcomes millions of visitors a year, the vast majority of them punters from mainland China. Yet the city’s reliance on gambling revenue is now a pressing issue that the Macanese government is keen to address in light of the spectacular crash in the gaming and tourism industry following China’s anti-corruption crackdown. In response, the Macau authorities mandated that businesses work to diversify revenue beyond gambling, a lofty aspiration given the vast percentage that gaming contributes to the city’s GDP. 

To what extent casino operators and hoteliers can make this a possibility is still up in the air, but this June, Lawrence Ho, chairman of Melco Resorts & Entertainment, made good on his promise to deliver a property that offers more than just gambling. It comes in the form of Morpheus – a 772-guestroom luxury lifestyle resort (with, yes, a casino) designed by none other than Zaha Hadid Architects.

What did the architectural firm, renowned for creating mammoth structures that instantly rejuvenate the areas in which they’re built, want to create for Macau? Viviana Muscettola, associate director at Zaha Hadid Architects and project leader for Morpheus, calls it a special place, citing an unprecedented international collaboration between designers, firms and client as the reason for its uniqueness.

“Lawrence was looking for something unseen,” she says. “When you find yourself in the very lucky combination of a very creative office like ours and put it together with a very illuminated client who really doesn’t limit what he wants to achieve, that’s where you get the sparkle, the fireworks for both parties.

“In the beginning, we went around, we saw Macau and wanted to understand our competitors, to understand the offer around in terms of buildings, in terms of architecture, and despite infrastructural projects that are very interesting, we haven’t really got much in terms of the identity of Macau architecture.

“So we started with a blank canvas. We had to think about designing something modern, not only representing Macau but more so the current status of the construction industry as well as the design. This project gave us the opportunity to really think about – invent somehow – a building that had no boundaries, design-wise.”

Patrik Schumacher, principal at Zaha Hadid Architects, is the man who picked up the reins after the death of the firm’s founder in 2016. He adds, “You find urban districts all around the world. They’re a collection of different icons so it’s very difficult for the collection as a whole to build up a character. So what we thought was to bring a new identity with a bold statement just to speak for itself.”

The building is deceptively simple from afar, a glass structure with a shape that brings to mind the Arc de Triomphe. A closer look, however, calls attention to a geometric cladding (realised with the help of shipbuilders) that forms the world’s first ever free-form exoskeleton high-rise structure – eradicating the need for internal walls or columns within the building – and at 40 floors, Morpheus also boasts a 35-metre-high atrium, something Schumacher calls “the peak of what we’ve done so far”.

How the firm came to this twisting nodular structure is attributed to Hadid’s interest in Chinese stones. “Zaha was interested in these rocks that get washed out and eroded in Chinese gardens,” says Schumacher. “That was one inspiration for this. The other is jade carvings, but it’s nothing you can directly pin down. We don’t work like that, right, but it’s kind of the fluid eroded forms from these Chinese garden rocks.”

It’s a testament to the bold creativity of the Zaha Hadid team that its members thrill in the creative complication of a rational, simple construction. “We’ve done a number of towers where we’re looking at expressing the skeleton,” Schumacher says. “Usually the towers have a structure inside, hidden in walls with simple columns on the outside where you see a curtain wall of some kind, so this is one of the most complex projects we’ve done. Especially when we’ve combined the structure with the atrium so that you see the structure from the inside as well as from the outside.

“Another way of looking at this building is that hidden within this beautiful structure is a podium and two towers, and what we’ve done is to reconnect them, add bridges and then make everything organic. So that’s hidden in this very rational diagram.”          

Amid all the discussion about what’s likely to become an instantly recognisable exterior, it would be remiss not to discuss the way the facade feeds into the interior experience. To Muscettola, what the building offers is the ability to create journeys. “The building frees up spaces for mixed use,” she says, “because there are a very limited number of columns throughout Morpheus, which means you can effectively rearrange all of the interiors of this building without having to touch anything from a structural point of view.

“The best way of flying through this building is of course the lifts, and I’ve seen people taking videos up and down, up and down. The reason being that it really is fantastic, the idea that you’re going through completely different spaces that are at times very open and at others closed. There’s the facade that comes towards you and then it disappears and then it comes back. All those things, I think, make for a fantastic journey and a new experience in terms of design and architecture.”

This is not without purpose. Known for his work with atria, and with a PhD in philosophy under his belt, Schumacher sees the exterior-interior dialogue of the building as a way to feed into modern urban society. Hollow buildings are, according to Schumacher, the key to communication. 

“It ties in with the idea of a network society,” he says. “It can work wherever you want to. It’s so that you can go from each corridor and you can look out into the atrium and see what’s going on in the various spaces. You can take the elevator and get a sense of where you can go later and what’s happening.

“Usually, in a tower you disappear in the elevator and then you say nothing. All you can go by is the numbers and you don’t get an experience. This one is for navigation, so the voids become a vertical street.”

It’s a significant breakthrough in terms of architectural innovation, but also one that smashes conventional ideas of what casino hotels might be. Gone are the overlit spaces where each gambler is focused only on the game, or the next one. 

Schumacher says, “The atrium is the contemporary version of a plaza or public square, except it’s fully three-dimensional. Here in particular you get a lot of natural light. Everywhere throughout the building you get vistas and views.”

More than that, the key to the atrium is to evolve tourism towards a more modern experience. “Why do you step into a city?” asks Schumacher. “You want to see many people. You want to get a sense of what’s going on. You don’t want to get into a room where you hide down a corridor in a little cell. 

“You want to step into a space where there are things going on, where there’s a buzz and a coming and going. You can see who’s there, who’s elegant and what’s happening. The atrium is seeing and being seen, visual connection – unfolding for you the offering of an entire building so you get many choices at your fingertips.”