Cape Town harbour is central to the city’s history, but for too long it has been cut off from the lives of its citizens. While the Victoria Wharf mall constitutes connection of a kind, consumption is the focus and the story of the working harbour is veiled by the glamour of catamarans and tour boats.
As a resident of the new Silo district at the V&A Waterfront and a long-time fan of the docks, I’m probably more aware of this than most. Here, the blast of a fishing boat’s horn in the early hours, the ropes, nets, crates and trucks lining the wharf, and the constant activity of the workers are a welcome dose of provenance in an otherwise future-facing development.
No surprise then that for Anya van der Merwe of Van der Merwe Miszewski Architects, the architect (and the firm) at the forefront of the Silo district’s design plan, the development is about identity, context, experience and serving the people. Central to it all was the restoration and alteration of the historic grain silo, with the buildings around it premised on community building and the creation of public space rather than on making a statement.
Architect Thomas Heatherwick’s transformation of the main silo building into the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa is impressive to look at, but its more intangible role as an art museum and ‘place maker’ for the city is equally exciting. Especially as it will champion African art to a public all too accustomed to longing for elsewhere.
Another positive result of this visionary plan, and particularly its message, is that the majority of the precinct’s retail mix is under female leadership. Amanda Dilima, the V&A’s retail leasing consultant, says that this was ‘a beautiful coincidence’. ‘[Retailers] had to have a name in non-traditional spaces and tie into the museum,’ she says. These businesses, namely The Guild Group, Glasshouse Rejuvenation, Opus, Kirsten Goss Jewellery, Kat van Duinen, The Yard and The Royal Portfolio, are established but have chosen not to have (nor do they want to have) a huge footprint. Their power is of the purposeful, not dominating, variety.
‘Becoming a factory is not the direction,’ says botanical florist Marissa Pretorius of Opus, who plans to offer interactive workshops at her Silo store. Positive impact and empowerment are key, as they should be in the city’s greenest zone – and any zone wanting to attract the truthful consumer. ‘They’re not just a number,’ says Carol Boag of her clients at Glasshouse Rejuvenation, the go-to for male (and now female) grooming.
This is a philosophy womenswear designer Kat van Duinen shares: ‘[Customers] must feel cared for – it’s not just about a quick sale,’ she says. Her store promises a curated experience where attention to detail extends to the hiring of qualified fashion designers as sales assistants. ‘Silo is presenting what we can do, how we make things, where these things come from and how we live.’
Though there’s nothing strident about the women heading up these spaces, they fit the female leadership picture and are all passionate about what they do and what the district stands for. ‘[The Guild Group] is growing the design industry and making an immediate difference to artists’ lives,’ says Lezanne van Heerden, the group’s Cape Town Southern Guild gallery director.
And when it comes to grabbing opportunities, ‘Who is the fastest out of bed?’ asks Kirsten Goss rhetorically. Kirsten certainly has an eye for offbeat chances and co-creation that has kept her at the forefront of the contemporary jewellery game (both at home and in London) for 15 years. Her local flagship store at Silo represents a step into couture territory and a reimagining of the South African diamond and gem story.
‘I found the idea of not being a part of this scarier than being a part of it,’ says Abigail Bisogno of The Yard. Given the success of her Paarl initiative, The Trading Company at Spice Route, this is more calculated risk than whim. The Yard offers farm produce, local beer, gin and wine, healthy lunches and a Michelin-starred chef at the restaurant in the manner of concept spaces such as Eataly in Italy.
‘I’ve looked for a city site for 10 years,’ says hotelier Liz Biden, who now counts The Silo Hotel as a part of her portfolio. ‘Where better than right here in the centre of things?’ Can this be called the centre of things? It certainly used to be, and the Silo district, as an extension of the city into the docks, could make it that once more.
Given the precinct’s big-business dimension – Allan Gray and PricewaterhouseCoopers have their Cape headquarters here – could it also mean that creativity is taking its rightful place as a branch of our economy? Yes, if The Guild Group – and its creative director Tammy Tinker – has anything to do with it.
GUILD, their multipurpose Silo space, is a showcase of some of the finest African functional art, furniture and products. Here you’ll see collaborations between local and international designers in the gallery, find the perfect limited-edition table at the studio and shop for Comme des Garçons Play and Lukhanyo Mdingi’s take on ‘I love Cape Town’ T-shirts in the store. Confidently placing African and global creative products alongside one another makes for a clever piece of paradigm shifting around the desirability, competitiveness and economic potential of local design – and a needed evolution of the all-or-nothing African design dialogue.
Animating the public realm is a big focus for the V&A Waterfront, which means that the space between museum, apartments, retailers, hotels and offices has been as carefully considered as the architecture and destination stores you’ll find there. This is likely to be where the area is returned to the city, and where the interplay of all these elements and people effects a greater awareness through an enriching spatial narrative about who we are – past, present and future – and how we take our place in the world.