IN PICTURES: Inside Zeitz MOCAA, the museum everyone's talking about

Architect Thomas Heatherwick on the challenges of converting the century-old grain silo at Cape Town's V&A Waterfront into a world-class art gallery

15 September 2017 - 09:48 By Jackie May
The atrium of the Zeitz MOCAA, which will officially open on September 22.
The atrium of the Zeitz MOCAA, which will officially open on September 22.
Image: IWAN BAAN

Softly-spoken Thomas Heatherwick wears baggy pants and Camper shoes to a media preview of the magnificently transformed grain silo complex at the V&A Waterfront in Cape Town.

The British architect says he was inspired by a brief to create an art institution on a continent as big as the whole of Europe and North America combined.

“There are all these incredible artists and galleries, but there hasn’t been a major institution to bring them together. Even if no one likes the design, it was an important strategic moment.”

The privately-funded Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa (MOCAA) is expected to create and invigorate interest in African contemporary art.

It felt exciting to be collaborating on a place that will do the opposite to what this grain silo used to do
Architect Thomas Heatherwick on designing the Zeitz MOCAA

The project is the result of a happy confluence of ideas and events.

African contemporary art collector and German businessman, Jochen Zeitz was looking for a museum to house his collection when the V&A Waterfront was wondering how to develop the century-old grain silo.

Heatherwick who had seen the silo on a Design Indaba trip to Cape Town about twenty years ago was appointed as the architect.  

“As we tuned into the fact that a lot of artists have chosen to work in Europe, Asia or north America, or send their work to be exhibited there it felt exciting to be collaborating on a place that will do the opposite to what this grain silo used to do. From here, grain was exported outwards. Now, we’re creating a place to which the art can return and from where it will not leak away,” he says.

The exterior of the Zeitz MOCCA.
The exterior of the Zeitz MOCCA.
Image: IWAN BAAN
Atrium view towards entrance.
Atrium view towards entrance.
Image: IWAN BAAN
The atrium of the Zeitz MOCAA.
The atrium of the Zeitz MOCAA.
Image: IWAN BAAN
Interstital tube space.
Interstital tube space.
Image: IWAN BAAN

With regards to the challenges this project presented, Heatherwick says, giving the museum’s curator, Mark Coetzee, the 80 galleries he wanted was difficult.

“Eighty galleries was really ambitious, almost greedy! And we worried about how we would meet a budget that is a lot of money in the African context, but very small in the global context of making an institution. It was just over £30-million. The (recently completed) Tate Modern (in London) extension was, I think, £270-million.”

Using the shape of a grain of corn that was found in the silo, Heatherwick’s team created a public space to stitch together the tubular tower and the elevator block next to it. The corn became “an ice-cream scoop” and it emerged as the solution that made rational what would otherwise be a random squiggly shape, he says.

Without demolishing much of the building, professional sculptors carved through the century-old concrete of the tubes in the tower.

“We thought it would be so much more soulful if we could keep this building and re-appropriate it for the higher testing of ideas and provoking of ourselves through imagination”.

View of the Zeitz MOCAA atrium from the tunnel.
View of the Zeitz MOCAA atrium from the tunnel.
Image: Iwan Baan
The atrium vault of the Zeitz MOCAA.
The atrium vault of the Zeitz MOCAA.
Image: IWAN BAAN

 With his part of the project complete, Heatherwick has been itching for the museum to be filled up with art.

“We’ve just made a container. We’ve handed over the baton to Mark and his team to fill it and I’m seeing the colour. It’s lifting my heart.”

AND WHAT ABOUT THE ART?

Here's a taste of some of the contemporary African art that'll be on show at the Zeitz MOCAA:

'Addio del Passato', 2011, by Yinka Shonibare, MBE.
'Addio del Passato', 2011, by Yinka Shonibare, MBE.
Image: Supplied
'Revelations XI', 2011, by Kudzanai Chiurai.
'Revelations XI', 2011, by Kudzanai Chiurai.
Image: Supplied
'The Night of the Long Knives I', 2013, by Athi-Patra Ruga.
'The Night of the Long Knives I', 2013, by Athi-Patra Ruga.
Image: Supplied

The official opening of the Zeitz MOCAA is on September 22. This weekend is the professional and patrons preview weekend.

This article was originally published in The Times.


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