Thomas Heatherwick reveals how he will transform grain silos into an ambitious new art museum

Thomas Heatherwick reveals how he will transform grain silos into an ambitious new art museum

With Cape Town’s World Design Capital programme in full swing, last week the city unveiled its plans for the new Zeitz Museum of Contemporary African Art (MoCAA). Opening in 2016 in a former grain silo complex on the V&A Waterfront, the 9,500 sq m space is being created by British designer Thomas Heatherwick and curated by Capetonian Mark Coetzee, former director of the Rubell Family Collection in Miami.
Forty-two concrete cylinders make up the heart of the 1920s silo building. Heatherwick plans to carve eight of them out to create a central light-filled atrium that will host monumental art commissions and site-specific works. German collector Jochen Zeitz, who is funding much of the institution, is donating works from his private collection and acquiring new ones. A dragon sculpture created by the South African artist Nicholas Hlobo for the 2013 Venice Biennale, will be installed in the atrium.

Coetzee’s remit is to fill the museum with post-2000 works by artists from Africa and its diaspora, but heavyweights such as Steve McQueen, Yinka Shonibare and William Kentridge will also be present.

Heatherwick is retaining the industrial machinery that was fully operational until the silo closed in the mid 1990s, and its labyrinth of underground tunnels will be re-engineered to create education and site-specific spaces. A restaurant and rooftop sculpture garden will occupy the upper levels of the nine-floor building, and the remaining cylinders will be shaved down and transformed into 80 gallery spaces, for both Zeitz’s collection and temporary exhibitions.   

We caught up with Heatherwick in Cape Town to find out more about the project...

W: How did you come to be involved?
Thomas Heatherwick: Nine years ago, I gave a talk at Design Indaba and crawled all around the inside of the abandoned silo. It stuck in my brain, and when new owners of The V&A Waterfront faced the problem of what to do with this idiosyncratic building made of tubes and no floors, they asked me to put together a proposal.

It’s your first art gallery, so tell us about the design.
Billions of grains were collected and sorted in the silo. It was part of a collective system and other silos existed around South Africa. We are taking one grain, supersizing it and carving it out of the central columns. Today we did a concrete cutting test, to try and get it silky - like butter, but with a raw edge. It’s a heritage site, so rather a bold thing to do.  

What about the location?
What excites me about this project is that it’s next to a working shipyard, offices and living space. It’s really mixed and is the most visited precinct in Africa. New buildings so rarely have any soulfulness, and often cities make the mistake of creating a ghetto of culture. To me culture is everything, from the toilets to the buses.

How do you think Zeitz MOCAA will impact on the city?
There is no major world-class institution in Africa, and our brief is to create one. It has hit us straight in the face. There will be incredible pieces on show, because, until now, there hasn’t been a conservation grade, environmentally controlled exhibition space on the continent, so artists, galleries and collectors haven’t been able to lend significant pieces. The South Africans I have spoken to predict that the centre of gravity for the art world will shift from Johannesburg to Cape Town. 

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