Disused Grain Silo Transformed into Africa's First Contemporary Art Institution


A transformed 1920s grain silo along Cape Town's Victoria & Alfred Waterfront will house the world's most significant collection of contemporary African art. Designed by British architect, Thomas Heatherwick, the highly-anticipated Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa (MOCAA), opened to the public last week.

Announced in November 2013, the R500-million not-for-profit Zeitz MOCAA was the result of a partnership between the V&A Waterfront and Jochen Zeitz and will showcase African artwork in 9,500 square metres of custom-designed space spread over nine floors, of which 6,000 square metres will be dedicated exhibition space.


The centrepiece of the design is a towering 10-storey (930 square metre) atrium carved out of the concrete tubes of the original grain silo structure. The V&A waterfront is a 123-hectare mixed-use destination, and one of Africa’s most visited cultural and historical hubs -- up to 100,000 people visit every day during peak season.

Speaking with Dezeen, Heatherwick said the budget for Zeitz MOCAA was minuscule by global standards: "[Just] over £30 million, but in the African context that's a serious amount of money. So we really focused our work and tried to look at how we could make that go the furthest.

"We could have knocked this structure down and just built an extraordinary spaceship. But museum-going isn't a normal thing here, and there was a great risk that people would come, have their photograph taken outside, and then go home saying they had been. So chief curator Mark Coetzee asked us: 'How can we make someone have to come inside?'."

We're used to buildings having their iconicity on the outside, whether it's an Opera House or a Gherkin or a Shard. These building have very powerful identities, but it felt like there was already a structure like that here. It was from an era when black people were oppressed, so you could make an argument for demolishing the structure completely, but you could also counter that, by treating it as a monument. From the top of the structure, you can see Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was kept prisoner. So it felt that there was a lot of texture and soulfulness and character embedded in the concrete of what was the tallest building in Sub-Saharan Africa for half a century."


The original building was composed of two main elements – a grading tower and a block of 42 tightly-packed silos. Disused since 1990, the building stands as a monument to the industrial past of Cape Town, and was once the tallest building in South Africa.

On the design, Heatherwick said it was a matter of transforming forty-two vertical concrete tubes into a place to experience contemporary culture.

“Our thoughts wrestled with the extraordinary physical facts of the building. There is no large open space within the densely packed tubes and it is not possible to experience these volumes from inside.

“Rather than strip out the evidence of the building’s industrial heritage, we wanted to find a way to enjoy and celebrate it. We could either fight a building made of concrete tubes or enjoy its tube-iness.” Heatherwick said.

Heatherwick Studio carved galleries and a central circulation space from the silos’ cellular concrete structure to create a spacious, cathedral-like central atrium filled with light from an overhead glass roof. They also cut a cross-section through eight of the central concrete tubes. The intended result was an oval atrium surrounded by concrete shafts overhead and to the sides. Light streaming through the new glass roof will accentuate the roundness of the tubes.


The museum contains more than its atrium. Heatherwick Studios also designed Zeitz MOCAA to include bookstores, a restaurant and bar, coffee shop, orientation rooms, a donors’ room, fellows’ room and various reading rooms. The silos complex also featured a collection of old underground tunnels, which were re-engineered to create education and site specific spaces for artists to dialogue with the original structure.


In the grading tower, concrete walls were cut away between the structural frame to create new three dimensionally shaped windows that reflects a kaleidoscope of textures and colours that change throughout the day. At night, the glow of lights inside transforms the tower into a beacon in the harbour.

“By repurposing our architectural heritage through an evocative juxtaposition of industrial design and contemporary art, we are creating a culturally significant institution of a scale that truly recognises the creative talents of Africa.” Zeitz MOCAA executive director Mark Coetzee said.

Zeitz MOCAA celebrated its official public opening on 22 September.

Images courtesy Heatherwick Studio.

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