How and why do old buildings appeal to us?’ asks English designer Thomas Heatherwick, whose world-renowned studio conceptualised the new Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa (Zeitz MOCAA) in Cape Town’s V&A Waterfront. ‘Is it just because they are old, or because of the way their scale or detail – or something else – works?’ There aren’t simple answers to these questions, but what is certain is that old buildings often have an atmosphere and attraction that new ones lack.
Built in 1921, the Grain Silo Complex in which the Zeitz MOCAA is situated was the tallest building in southern Africa for half a century and the storage site for tons of harvested mielies before they were exported via the harbour. The structure, which is almost entirely made up of huge reinforced concrete tubes, has not been used for its original purpose since 2001.
In 2006, Heatherwick attended Design Indaba in Cape Town, and its founder Ravi Naidoo showed him the building, saying that something needed to be done with the iconic but disused structure. Some years later David Green, CEO of the V&A Waterfront, continued that conversation, which soon turned towards the possibility of creating a cultural institution.
Concurrently, businessman and philanthropist Jochen Zeitz was working with curator Mark Coetzee to build a collection of contemporary art from Africa and its diaspora – with the long-term vision of creating the first major museum dedicated to it on the African continent. And the eventual meeting of these two groups of people resulted in the creation of the not-for-profit public institution now named Zeitz MOCAA.
Transforming a structure made of tubes into a building that can contain 100 gallery spaces and a large staff contingent – as well as accommodate thousands of visitors – is no easy matter. As Heatherwick says, the building also needed to have a heart and clear, simple ways to move around it. In short, the challenge was to create ‘integration between an old structure and new needs’.
The concept devised by his studio was to take the shape of a single mielie kernel, digitally scan and enlarge it, and then use this as the model for cutting out the central atrium (or ‘heart’) of the building from the tubular structure.
The cutting work began in 2012 and included hours of painstaking work that involved slicing through widely varying concrete at extreme angles because of the organic shape of the mielie kernel. This area is lit from above via a new transparent roof design that allows natural light to enter the multistorey atrium, and the highly distinctive ‘pillow’ windows (designed especially for the project by Heatherwick Studio and made by a South African supplier) were also added to light the interiors.
Partially excavated tubes on one side of the atrium contain cylindrical glass elevators, which allow amazing views of the space as you travel up and down in them, and a spiral staircase from which thousands of selfies are bound to be taken.
Most of the galleries are white cubes that form a ‘family’ of exhibition spaces of varying sizes and shapes. The curatorial team will be able to use these in different ways in the years to come – and artists will also be able to exhibit in some of the ‘non-gallery’ areas of the building. (The first to do so will be Angolan photographer Edson Chagas, whose solo show is being installed in the Zeitz MOCAA’s basement level.)
The existing magnolia-coloured paint was stripped off the building’s exterior and underneath, says Heatherwick, ‘its colour and texture was even richer than we expected’ and has been left intact. The original track sheds (the grain arrived at the silos in carts on railway tracks) were removed from the building during the construction process, refurbished and then reattached. They now form the entrance to the museum and make for an intriguing way into the building. The tracks, a number of the carts and the original detailing have all been left in place as a reminder of the structure’s history here – and inside, a number of the conveyor belts, chutes and giant valves that moved the grain around in the past have also been retained.
In a manner reminiscent of the grain that occupied this space before the art, the Zeitz MOCAA is intended to be a place from which the unique ideas and insights of African contemporary artists will ‘feed’ the world. And there’s no doubt that the remarkable complex in which this exciting new institution is housed makes its own very special contribution to its mission.
Visit zeitzmocaa.museum for more details.