Private Museums of the World: Zeitz MOCAA

From a historic building to contemporary art museum
London-based Heatherwick Studio turned a 1920s granary in Cape Town into the world’s largest museum dedicated to contemporary art from Africa.

by Nadezna Siganporia Published on : Jan 08, 2021

It’s the juxtaposition of pristine white box like galleries against the organic, fluid atrium that intrigues the senses. The contrast of curved glass facades set within the scarred and textured concrete walls calls out to the visitor before they even enter the Zeitz MOCAA. Located in Cape Town’s Victoria & Alfred Waterfront Silo District, this museum is the world’s largest dedicated to contemporary art from Africa and its diaspora. Designed by the internationally acclaimed London-based Heatherwick Studio, the museum, which is spread over nine floors, has been carved out from the historic structure of the Grain Silo Complex.

“The fact that it was going to be the backdrop for contemporary art from Africa played into the design of the venue; that was the defining essence of the project,” explains Stepan Martinovsky, project leader, Heatherwick Studio. “We had this iconic industrial heritage building from the 1920s that was abandoned…at one time the tallest building in South Africa, its silhouette dominates the harbour. It was testament to the industrial architecture and engineering of the time. We wanted to honour the building because it had many significant moments and layers,” he adds.  

The interior spaces were carved out from the forty-two tightly packed grain silos | Zeitz MOCAA by Heatherwick Studio | STIRworld
The interior spaces were carved out from the 42 tightly packed grain silos Image: Courtesy of Hufton+Crow, and Zeitz MOCAA

Why this turned out to be an especially challenging task was because the original granary was made up of forty-two 33-metre high tightly packed concrete tubes to store grain. With a diameter of 5.5 metres each, there was no space within the structure to host galleries and move around. Though it appears as a single structure, the building is essentially composed of a grading tower and these cellular silos. Since it was protected, the architects had to turn it into a functioning space that could work well as a museum with permanent and rotating exhibitions as well as site-specific art while holding on to the building’s industrial heritage. To achieve this, they retained the original outer structure and carved out a beautiful, organic space within. The venue now includes 80 gallery spaces, a central atrium, a rooftop sculpture garden, storage and conservation areas, a bookshop, a restaurant, bar, and reading rooms.

The old, scarred concrete was preserved to retain the soul of the historic building; seen here is the Centre for Moving Image | Zeitz MOCAA | Heatherwick Studio | STIRworld
The old, scarred concrete was preserved to retain the soul of the historic building; seen here is the Centre for Moving Image Image: Antonia Steyn, Courtesy of Zeitz MOCAA

A fortuitous meeting of two worlds

In 2006, when British designer Thomas Heatherwick was invited to Design Indaba, a design festival in Cape Town, the organiser Ravi Naidoo introduced him to the Grain Silo Complex and V&A Waterfront. At this time the harbour was being redeveloped into a functioning harbour and tourist area while the building lay abandoned and ideas were still floating around about what could be done with it. During early brainstorming sessions, they realised the need for a cultural institution. Around the same time, German businessman, collector of African art and founder of The Zeitz Foundation, Jochen Zeitz, was working to find a venue in Cape Town to house his collection. Eventually, in 2013, the development of Zeitz MOCAA was announced as a partnership between the V&A Waterfront and Jochen Zeitz and Heatherwick Studio was tasked with transforming the location into what it is today.

The galleries are deliberately sedate to let the art speak volumes; seen here is an installation by Mary Sibande titled ‘In the midst of chaos, there is opportunity’ | Zeitz MOCAA by Heatherwick Studio | STIRworld
The galleries are deliberately sedate to let the art speak volumes; seen here is an installation by Mary Sibande titled In the midst of chaos, there is opportunity Image: Antonia Steyn, Courtesy of Zeitz MOCAA

Marrying the historic with the contemporary

“With contemporary art museums popping up around the world, we started to think of how to make this one unique and special,” says Martinovsky. “The ambition of the project was to turn this into a serious platform to showcase contemporary art from Africa and artists from Africa living around the world. We used the industrial spirit of the building; we thought this building already had a soul, it was very embedded in the context and history”. The brief given to them for the exhibition spaces and galleries, however, was in contrast to the original structure. Where gritty concrete walls told a story, the generic white, box-shaped gallery spaces had to have no traces of architectural detailing. “We took that concrete shell and created spaces inside to drop in these white boxes as the galleries,” Martinovsky continues. “The white boxes are like the containers of art; and the art starts spilling out into the building leading to the big moment - the atrium”.  

The central atrium forms the heart of the museum | Zeitz MOCAA by Heatherwick Studio | STIRworld
The central atrium forms the heart of the museum Image: Iwan Baan, Courtesy of Zeitz MOCAA

The heart of the museum

The architects realised the need for a central space where one can get a sense of orientation, a place to circulate. “That space did not exist so we had to create it by demolishing from the existing fabric of the building; carving into the 42 cylindrical cavities. We thought the original building was rigid and modular and we wanted to make something more organic as the main space so it plays with the rigidity,” mentions Martinovsky. The shape of the atrium is modelled on that of a single grain that was taken from the silo. From the atrium you can see the anatomy of the building and see the space you would never otherwise be able to enter.

The atrium was modelled on the shape of a single grain taken from the silo | Zeitz MOCAA by Heatherwick Studio | STIRworld
The atrium was modelled on the shape of a single grain taken from the silo Image: Iwan Baan, Courtesy of Zeitz MOCAA

Executing this design turned out to be quite a challenge, one that hadn’t been attempted before. The original walls were really thin, only 17 centimetres thick with hardly any steel rebars in them. This could mean the entire structure collapsing as they carved a hollow in the middle. “As a structural solution, we first reinforced the cylindrical silo walls by following their geometry. The original concrete cylinders now have new concrete cylinders inside them like sleeves lining the walls. We used these new cylinders as guidelines to cut the old concrete out to reveal the space within. When you look at it, one can distinguish between the old and new layers,” says Martinovsky.

Curved glass facades are set against the gritty concrete walls | Zeitz MOCAA by Heatherwick Studio | STIRworld
Curved glass facades are set against the gritty concrete walls Image: Iwan Baan, Courtesy of Zeitz MOCAA

The dialogue between the old and new

In the original building there was steel machinery that moved grain around. This was the inspiration for features like the spiral staircase and the walkways which are made of steel that now work to move people around the space. “We also stripped away to the old concrete and jet washed it so you can now see the texture and the scars on the walls. We wanted to shine a spotlight on its wrinkles and bring out the history of this 100 odd year old building. We also inserted new glass façades; spherical in shape, they curve outwards as if the new life of the building has gently inflated them. It looks like a large lantern, a beckon in the harbour. It’s the new façade within the old walls; the old, rough concrete with the new glass bubbling through it,” informs Martinovsky.

Located above the atrium, the rooftop sculpture garden has glass skylights covered in the ‘Cosmic Alphabet’ by artist El Loko | Zeitz MOCAA by Heatherwick Studio | STIRworld
Located above the atrium, the rooftop sculpture garden has glass skylights covered in the ‘Cosmic Alphabet’ by artist El Loko Image: Antonia Steyn, Courtesy of Zeitz MOCAA

Another fascinating feature is the rooftop sculpture garden, which provides a breakout space where one can reflect and take in the panoramic views of the city and the harbour. Located directly on top of the atrium, there are glass skylights which filter daylight into the structure. These glass skylights are art installations – covered in artist El Loko’s ‘Cosmic Alphabet’, a language consisting of symbols taken from his earlier work.

Private Museums of the World:
Curated by Pramiti Madhavji, STIR presents Private Museums of the World: an original series that takes you behind the scenes of privately-owned museums, sharing their origin with chats with art collectors, museum directors, curators and architects, who seamlessly come together to create the most unusual and amazing structures to host art collections.

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