The recently-opened Zeitz MOCAA (Museum of Contemporary Art Africa) at the V&A Waterfront in Cape Town is a breath-taking new space for the exhibition of African art. But that’s not the only reason for its allure. The building itself, or rather what prolific English designer Thomas Heatherwick, of Heatherwick Studios, has created out of it, is a marvel all on its own.
Constructed in the 1920s (and then, the tallest building in Cape Town), the massive concrete structure was initially built as a grain silo. Today, the immediate environs have been labelled ‘The Silo District’ in homage to the building’s history. After lying empty for decades and falling into disuse, the structure has now made a successful transition from its agricultural and industrial origins to the art and hospitality industries. In addition to housing the museum, the building is also the site of the luxurious Silo Hotel.
Before renovations began, the site comprised of a grading tower (now the Silo Hotel) and a block of 42 tubular silos. The design of Zeitz MOCAA involved carving a series of 80 exhibition spaces out of these silos. At the museum’s centre is an expansive atrium, in the shape of a kernel of corn, which reaches up to the ceiling.
The result of Heatherwick’s work is a vast concrete chamber whose interior approximates the labyrinth-like complexity of a hornet’s nest or a human heart. Visitors can look across or down into the atrium through large oval-shaped concave “windows” whose polished concrete edges are vestigial reminders of the silos that once populated the interior.
Zeitz MOCAA is a full 27 metres high, accommodating five floors’ worth of exhibition space. The ceiling has been fitted with thick laminated glass, which bears a pattern that was designed by the late West African artist El Loko.
The reconceptualisation of Cape Town’s historic grain silo is one of Heatherwick Studio’s most remarkable architectural achievements. The studio’s other work includes the UK’s Olympic Velodrome and the Bombay Sapphire Distillery, the Learning Hub at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, and Hong Kong’s bustling commercial development, Pacific Place.
Photography: Iwan Baan