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Thomas Heatherwick and the new MOCAA

By Sue Williamson on 18 March

Thomas Heatherwick


Thomas Heatherwick, .

The huge international reputation of British designer Thomas Heatherwick lent a particular edge of excitement to the recent unveiling of his architectural plans for the new Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa at Cape Town’s V&A Waterfront.

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An archival photo of the old grain silo, which has not been in use for more than 20 years

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An archival photo of the old grain silo, which has not been in use for more than 20 years



Heatherwick has been described as ‘The Leonardo da Vinci of our times’ by design supremo Sir Terence Conran, and, in 2012, the work of his studio was the subject of a major retrospective at the V&A Museum, London, titled ‘Heatherwick Studio: Designing the Extraordinary’. From the new London double decker bus, in which the windows spiral up the rear so that ascending passengers can look outside all the time (it also uses 40% less energy than the old buses), to designing the stadium known as the Cauldron at the 2012 Olympics in London, Heatherwick’s accomplishments fill a coffee table book as thick as two telephone directories.

But the Zeitz MOCAA will be Heatherwick’s first museum. The events leading up to this partnership between architect, the V&A Waterfront as developer, Jochen Zeitz as art collector and patron, and Mark Coetzee as director of the new museum are worth chronicling. Two years ago, Heatherwick was a speaker at the annual Design Indaba in Cape Town, and was introduced to V&A CEO David Green and his team, who showed him the abandoned silo building down near the Clocktower. Constructed in 1920 to store grains, the silo had ceased operation in 1990. As the Waterfront became more and more developed, speculation grew as to what function the old silo building could usefully fill. Ideas included a design or a maritime museum.

The architect’s drawing of the new Zeitz MOCAA

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The architect’s drawing of the new Zeitz MOCAA



Meanwhile, German business magnate and dedicated art collector Jochen Zeitz and his curator, Mark Coetzee, were traveling Africa looking for a site to locate a new museum which would be dedicated to contemporary African art, the focus of Zeitz’s collection. Zeitz has a home in Nairobi, so extensive explorations took place there, and also in Bamako, in Joburg and in Cape Town. Coetzee says the criteria were that the new museum should be an iconic building, and that it should be very accessible to the general public.The decision was finally made that that building would be the ex-silo, a decision sweetened by the V&A’s commitment to put R500 million into the development. 

As Heatherwick pointed out, at this point, one possibility would have been to knock the old building down, and build a shiny new museum – ‘a trend which has spread like a rash through Asia’. But this was not seriously considered. On the other hand, says Heatherwick, ‘buildings that have an existing structure can be too deferential to the historical. Africa is not timid – how could we have a mix and at the same time also be confident enough to do something which didn’t respect it (the structure) too much?

The silo really consists of two buildings – the tubular silos themselves, 42 of them, six rows of seven, and the slab-like building adjoining the silos. The structure can be seen most clearly in the old black and white photo above. The first problem, said Heatherwick, was ‘how the power of the building could be kept – and how we could unify the two sections’. Another was to create a major exhibition space within the building – think of the importance of the Turbine Hall to the Tate Modern.

Heatherwick’s inspired solution was to take the slightly irregular shape of one of the maize kernels which had once been stored in the silos, a rather fat teardrop shape, blow it up to vast size and carve it out of the nestled silo tubes. The space thus created will be part organic in feel, part futuristic. Says Heatherwick: ‘This will not be a radical reshaping of the building. But when you are in the space, you will feel the generosity of it.’

The heart of the MOCAA – carved out of the existing structure

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The heart of the MOCAA – carved out of the existing structure



At present, the exterior of the building is covered with a wall finish in a colour described by David Green as ‘bedroom magnolia’. This will be chipped off to reveal the base material of a concrete fortified with small bluish stones. Concrete picks up its appearance from the local stones used to strengthen the cement base, and Heatherwick’s discovery of just how attractive these little local bluish stones made the silo concrete was fortuitous – a new surface would not be necessary. A clear sealer will protect the finish.  

At the top of the building will be the main public space, allowing visitors to look down through the tops of the glazed tubes. Inside, 80 galleries will be on view, including areas set aside for projections and performance art.

Opening hours will be midday to midnight – to allow maximum social engagement in the long Cape evenings – though special arrangements will be made for schools to visit in the morning. The museum offices will not be tucked away from public gaze as is normal museum practice, but integrated into the general areas, along with shops, an education centre and restaurants. No fewer than 3000 parking spaces will be tucked away below ground.

Says Heatherwick: ‘If this building was a belly button it’s an innie, not an outie, Everything is on the inside.’  It may be true that all the functions of the museum will be on the inside, but the impact of its activities on the world outside will be immense. 

There is little doubt that the Heatherwick-designed new Zeitz MOCAA will be of enormous significance, not only in Cape Town, as a drawcard to art lovers, children and visitors alike, but also as the most significant venue in Africa, and arguably, in the world, for contemporary African art. To give Heatherwick the last word: ‘It will be a mirror for Africa that shows back to Africa the amazing things that go on here.’

Construction on the transformation of the old silos is currently underway

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Construction on the transformation of the old silos is currently underway



A cross section showing the layers of galleries


A cross section showing the layers of galleries