The Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa: Celebrate this accomplishment, watch what comes next, and keep an open mind

The Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa (Zeitz MOCAA), was unveiled ahead of its public opening on 22 September 2017 at Cape Town’s V&A Waterfront. It will be the world’s largest museum dedicated to contemporary art from Africa and its diaspora and is designed by internationally acclaimed designers Heatherwick Studio, based in London. The museum is housed in 9,500sq metres of custom designed space, spread over nine floors, carved out of the monumental structure of the historic Grain Silo Complex. The silo, disused since 1990, stands as a monument to the industrial past of Cape Town, at one time the tallest building in South Africa, now given new life through the transformation by Heatherwick Studio.

The galleries and the atrium space at the centre of the museum have been carved from the silos’ dense cellular structure of forty-two tubes that pack the building. The development includes 6,000 sq metres of exhibition space in 80 gallery spaces, a rooftop sculpture garden, state of the art storage and conservation areas, a bookshop, a restaurant, bar, and reading rooms. The museum will also house Centres for a Costume Institute, Photography, Curatorial Excellence, the Moving Image, Performative Practice and Art Education. The R500 million (£30 million) development of Zeitz MOCAA, announced in November 2013, has been created in a partnership between the V&A Waterfront and Jochen Zeitz, as a not-for-profit public cultural institution in the heart of one of most visited cultural and historical hubs in Africa. Set on the edge of a natural, historic working harbour, with the iconic Table Mountain as its backdrop, and sweeping views of the ocean, city bowl and mountain peaks, V&A Waterfront attracts up to 100,000 people a day.

Thomas Heatherwick, Founder of Heatherwick Studio, said: “The idea of turning a giant disused concrete grain silo made from 116 vertical tubes into a new kind of public space was weird and compelling from the beginning. We were excited by the opportunity to unlock this formerly dead structure and transform it into somewhere for people to see and enjoy the most incredible artworks from the continent of Africa. The technical challenge was to find a way to carve out spaces and galleries from the ten-storey high tubular honeycomb without completely destroying the authenticity of the original building. The result was a design and construction process that was as much about inventing new forms of surveying, structural support and sculpting, as it was about normal construction techniques. As the opening approaches we are all looking forward to witnessing the impact of the museum’s ambitious artistic programme and the museum taking its pivotal place in the middle of Africa’s cultural infrastructure.”

Mat Cash, Group Leader, Heatherwick Studio said: “Our challenge was understanding what was needed for an institution of such broad ambition then extracting that space, flexibility and scale from an almost solid historic object. Because the radical transformation of the space and function of the building risked losing the stories it had to tell, we needed to be brave and respectful at the same time. It has been an enormous privilege to work on a project of such significance. We owe a great deal to our expert local collaborators with whom we’ve worked so closely over the last four years.”

British designer Thomas Heatherwick received no training as an architect—his degrees, from Manchester Polytechnic and the Royal Academy of Art, are in three-dimensional design. What to make, then, of his rapid scaling of the professional barricades and solid landing in the bastion of the global architectural elite? If the recently opened Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa (MoCAA) in Cape Town is our guide, there are multiple reasons to cheer the incursion. Inside, outside, Zeitz is stunning. Beauty is its own reward, but there’s more. This is one of the most important new public buildings anywhere, and surely one of the most significant in Africa.

Cape Town, routinely referred to as Africa’s most European city, has long drawn international tourists, and its V&A Waterfront, the historic harbour named after Queen Victoria and her son Alfred, is the city’s most visited destination. At one edge rises a nearly 200-foot-high grain elevator and silo that, when completed in 1924, stood as the tallest structure in Sub-Saharan Africa. It was decommissioned in the 1990s.
In South Africa, public space is a fraught, and somewhat neglected, terrain. Although apartheid was legally dismantled in 1994, the country continues to suffer the multiple distortions of its legacy. When the African National Congress (ANC) took over, all the country’s formal urban spaces, private and public, had been conceived, designed, constructed, and controlled by whites. Since then, the ANC has devoted itself to building housing to ameliorate the appalling slum conditions in the townships. New public space has not been a priority.

The exception is the transformation of Cape Town’s harbour. V&A Waterfront Authority officials recognized the grain elevator’s potential but struggled with ideas for how to use it and turned to Heatherwick for help. Concurrently, Jochem Zeitz, a German collector of African art, working with Mark Coetzee, a curator native to Cape Town, sought a venue to house his growing collection of contemporary African art. An unlikely marriage was consummated. Heatherwick’s brief was reformulated into the problem of transforming this concatenation of historic, poured-in-place concrete structures–the 190-foot-tall cluster of 44 rectangular and square grain storage bins, the 108-foot-tall cluster of 42 cylindrical silos, and a small dust house—into a world-class museum. Aside from the 10 World Cup stadiums finished in 2010, this would be South Africa’s first major new public space in decades.

The exterior’s immensity and compositional clarity more or less guaranteed the project’s iconicity— there’s a reason Walter Gropius, Le Corbusier, and Charles Sheeler championed grain silos, with their stark, geometric purity, as towering incarnations of modernity—but Heatherwick refashioned this one into more than just a splendid exemplar of the type. Multiple layers of paint were removed, revealing the silos’ continuous surfaces—astonishingly, constructed in a single pour—which greatly amplifies their monumentality. Heatherwick—whose Learning Hub at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore demonstrates his understanding of the phenomenological allure of rich, variegated, textured surfaces—then polished and sealed the silos and elevators’ craggy, coarse-aggregate-filled concrete. To signal the structure’s programmatic transformation (in addition to an art museum, it contains a boutique hotel), he designed beautifully detailed, pillowlike windows. The faceted structural glazing changes colour with the reflected light to make the Zeitz a beacon for miles around.
The exterior proved simple compared to the structural and programmatic conundrums of the interiors, which were critical to the museum’s sustained success. Just enticing visitors to actually enter the Zeitz was a central challenge, Heatherwick and Coetzee explain, as virtually no culture of museum-going exists in South Africa: people migrate to the redeveloped waterfront to shop, to dine, and to catch the ferry to Robben Island, not to partake of high culture—local or global, black or white.

“Theatricality should be inherent to pieces of public infrastructure” and civic landmarks, Heatherwick maintains, and his design for the main interiors of Zeitz MoCAA embodies theatricality in the best sense of the word: it tugs on your emotions, inspires a sense of delight. To do this, Heatherwick amped up his celebration of the building’s history. The narrow, vertical entrance foyer draws your gaze upward, where you discover, inset into the ceiling high above you, the original metal chutes that, when cranked open by hand, would pour the stored grains directly into large, open containers parked on train trestles. Immediately, an impression: this is an active place.

And then! Proceeding into the lobby opens up a jaw-dropping vaulted atrium—before, below, and above you—etched deep with shadows, streaming with sunlight. Reminiscent of Louis Kahn’s unbuilt, much smaller Mikveh Israel Synagogue project, this public atrium is as affecting as Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Bilbao, a flat-out wondrous space, at once dynamic and containing, sensuously textural and gravely monumental.

Correctly determining that maintaining the existing building’s rigid geometries risked an overly static design, Heatherwick scanned a corn kernel to use as the datum for the shape of the atrium’s void, which is carved into the building’s clustered cylinders. The contrast between the void’s irregular, biomorphic curves and the concrete silos’ geometric regularity creates an extremely dynamic composition. (The 80 gallery spaces on nine floors, for a total of 65,000 square feet, are differently sized and proportioned white boxes. They function, they’re fine, and they’re nothing particularly special, but they are precisely what the curators demanded.)

The execution of this atrium proved more than complex. When the silos were originally constructed, the simple fact of their clustering created the building’s lateral stability. How to carve a long-span, multistory atrium out of such a structure? Working with engineers from Arup and local partner firms—Van der Merwe Miszewski Architects, Rick Brown Associates, and Jacobs Parker—Heatherwick’s team designed what is essentially a new building to support the original structure. Reinforced concrete “sleeves,” 9¾ inches thick, were poured inside each 18-foot-diameter cylinder. Then a land surveyor mapped hundreds of coordinates from the corn-kernel scans onto the silo bins, enabling contractors to identify where to scoop through the resulting two sandwiched layers of concrete.

This design produced opportunities for construction details that significantly enhance the building’s emotionally arresting quality. The sanded, velvety-smooth surfaces of the new structure highlight the burnished, jewel-like quality of historic concrete. Heatherwick is unapologetically after what he calls soulfulness, explaining that as a child “the public areas in cities always seemed to be their worst parts.” He credits his artistic training with helping get him to his current practice, adding that the curricula in architecture schools in the 1980s, when he was a design student, seemed “so abstracted from the everyday experience of people.”

Artist, architect, whatever: Heatherwick’s sensibility is a welcome addition to contemporary architectural discourse. Celebrate this accomplishment, watch what comes next, and keep an open mind.