Reimaging history

British designer Thomas Heatherwick unveils his design proposal for Silo in the V&A Waterfront, Cape Town – a project that started nine years ago.

Imagine forty-two 33 metre high concrete tubes each with a diameter of 5.5 metres, with no real open space to experience the volume from within. Imagine redesigning this into a functional space that will not only pay tribute to its original industrial design and soul, but will become a major, not-for-profit cultural institution housing the most significant collection of contemporary art from Africa and its diaspora.

The brief given to Heatherwick Studio was to reimagine the Grain Silo Complex at the V&A Waterfront with an architectural intervention inspired by its own historic character. The project called for a solution that would be unique for Africa and create the highest possible quality of exhibition space for the work displayed inside.

The V&A Waterfront’s challenge to repurpose what was once the tallest building on the Cape Town skyline caught the imagination of internationally acclaimed designer Thomas Heatherwick and his innovative team of architects.

This was a chance to do more than just appropriate a former industrial building to display art, but to imagine a new kind of museum in an African context.

The R500-million redevelopment project, announced in November 2013 as a partnership between the V&A Waterfront and Jochen Zeitz, will retain and honour the historic fabric and soul of the building while transforming the interior into a unique, cutting-edge space to house the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa (Zeitz MOCAA). Considered the most extensive and representative collection of contemporary art from Africa, the Zeitz Collection has been gifted in perpetuity to this non-profit institution by ex-Puma CEO and chairman, Jochen Zeitz. The collection will be showcased in 9 500m2 of custom-designed space spread over nine floors, of which 6 000 m2 will be dedicated exhibition space.

Heatherwick Studio, based in London, is recognised internationally for projects including the UK Pavilion at the 2010 Shanghai World Expo, The London 2012 Olympic Cauldron, the New Bus for London and the redevelopment of Pacific Place, a 640 000m2 complex in the centre of Hong Kong.

For the Zeitz MOCAA project, Heatherwick Studio will partner with three local architectural firms: Van Der Merwe Miszewski (VDMMA), Rick Brown Associates (RBA) and Jacobs Parker. Jacobs Parker will be the lead designer for the museum fit out.

The key challenge has been to preserve the original industrial identity of the building, which is heritage listed, and to retain choice pieces of machinery to illustrate and maintain its early working character. Heatherwick Studio has met the brief with characteristic boldness and creative flair. The final design reveals a harmonious union of concrete and metal with crisp white spaces enveloped in light.

How do you turn forty-two vertical concrete tubes into a place to experience contemporary culture? Our thoughts wrestled with the extraordinary physical facts of the building. There is no large open space within the densely packed tubes and it is not possible to experience these volumes from inside. Rather than strip out the evidence of the building’s industrial heritage, we wanted to find a way to enjoy and celebrate it. We could either fight a building made of concrete tubes or celebrate its tube-iness, Heatherwick said at the closing of day one of the Conference today. 


Watch the Talk with Thomas Heatherwick