Zeitz Mocaa: poster child for the transformative power of architecture

Africa's first contemporary art museum embodies a transformative narrative that comes at a crucial time for South Africa and the continent

29 October 2017 - 00:00 By Graham Wood
Sculpture Garden One at the Zeitz Mocaa in Cape Town.
Sculpture Garden One at the Zeitz Mocaa in Cape Town.
Image: Supplied

At the grand opening ceremony of the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa (Zeitz Mocaa), Thomas Heatherwick — the British designer and architect who transformed the old grain silos at the V&A Waterfront into the continent’s largest museum dedicated to contemporary art from Africa and its diaspora — compared the project to the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern in London, by Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron. “This was not a power station that had giant turbine holds,” he said. “There wasn’t a space inside this extraordinary concrete structure. It was just silos divided and split up.” 

When it opened 21 years ago, the Tate Modern became the benchmark for the transformation of disused industrial spaces into cultural landmarks, and is a hugely successful contemporary art museum.

The V&A Waterfront had similar ambitions for the disused 100-year-old grain silo on the city’s waterfront dock. Although it had operated until about the turn of the millennium, the silos had been disused for some time, but were a listed heritage site. 

To transform the silo complex into an art museum, however, would require a different approach from that of Herzog & de Meuron. The structure of the building itself comprised more than 100 tubes of various shapes and forms: “square tubes, rectangular tubes, circular tubes, and cruciform tubes”. As a grain silo, it was designed for grain storage, not for the quality of its interiors.

“We needed to make a space, and we were trying to work out, how do we do this?” Heatherwick said. “Do we cut a square space; do we cut a sphere?” While contemplating how, “on the most boring level, to stop you getting lost”, he had an extraordinary realisation. “We realised, cutting through circular tubes did something beautiful. We all know what tubes look like, but when you cut through them with a curve, they create these magical lines.”  

Zeitz Mocaa atrium, designed by Heatherwick Studios.
Zeitz Mocaa atrium, designed by Heatherwick Studios.
Image: Iwan Baan

There’s no denying that the central atrium of the Zeitz Mocaa has a magical quality. It is a mesmerising space, with light flooding down through the tubes from skylights, and the concrete curves creating an extraordinary sense of drama.

The new atrium (the shape of which is actually based on a mielie pip, digitally scanned and “enlarged  to be almost 10 stories high” and “cut out of the heart of the building” as Heatherwick described it) has been repeatedly compared to a cathedral. 

It is an appropriate comparison. Art galleries have come to function as secular churches in many ways in various modern cultures. But, more importantly in this case, the simple wonder that the space (or the potential for such beauty) existed all along, but was somehow hidden or unrealised, adds a dimension of redemption to the design. 

At its simplest, the transformation is metaphorical. Carving an open space from the interior of the building began a narrative, Heatherwick explained, about “busting people out of their separate silos”. It became a metaphor for the beauty that can be created from dissolving separations. “We felt that our role was to create togetherness, and to give a heart to a building that had been heartless,” Heatherwick said. 

Another layer of the power of the metaphor is that the memory or the reminder of the separation remains in the new design. Those curves and arches represent the drama of the transformation playing itself out eternally in the form of the atrium: a constantly renewed vision of something mundane becoming something extraordinary. 

A central part of the narrative of South African life is transformation. Dealing with the heritage of a city, or a building — dealing with history itself — involves a significant effort in reconciling a shameful past with the need to build a future. How do you take a divided and fractured past and find common humanity in it? How do you simultaneously acknowledge a shameful history, but retrieve some sort of common identity or purpose from it?

Whereas a spectacular new building might have sent a bold, unambiguous message about hope for the future, a symbolic structure that finds its vision for the future in the transformation of the past has the capacity to heal, to offer redemption.   

Mark Coetzee, curator of the Zeitz Collection — the private collection of billionaire philanthropist Jochen Zeitz, that forms the heart of the museum’s collection — put it explicitly when he introduced Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu at the opening ceremony: “This museum is more than just a place for beautiful objects. It is a place that is essential for the survival of humanity. It is the place where we have to learn to get on." 

“We dream for this museum to be a place which is safe, but where very difficult issues can be discussed,” he continued. “Where we can learn about each other, we can learn about our differences. And if we can do it in a safe environment, we can understand each other better.” Mutual understanding, he argued, is the crucial ingredient for peace. 

In South Africa, the precedent for the Zeitz Mocaa would be a building such as the Constitutional Court, which did the extraordinary work of transforming the meaning of a site of shameful history and inhumanity into a symbol of reconciliation. It did this through the fusion of public institution, architecture, and art. 

The Zeitz Mocaa is different. Its site isn’t as historically loaded or filled with pain as Constitution Hill, and its context is commercial. It is part of the V&A Waterfront, and follows the commercial sense of dockside redevelopments around the world. The importance of the museum to function as an anchor for commercial activities is quite clear.

But that doesn’t detract from its achievement. It might have taken a German billionaire’s private collection to make Africa’s first museum of contemporary African art, and begin the symbolic works of reflecting the importance of the continent’s own modernity back at its people, and a profit-driven enterprise to bring it about, but the extraordinary fact is that it happened.

Centre for the moving image at Zeitz Mocaa.
Centre for the moving image at Zeitz Mocaa.
Image: Supplied

What is even more extraordinary is the nature of the space that’s been created. Heatherwick’s paradoxical description that what he did was to “cut (a grain of maize) out of the heart of the building” so that when you walk in “now there is a heart, and now there is a space”, sums it up. 

That atrium is a generous space. Rather than projecting a message, it offers an invitation: to be inhabited, to be filled with exhibits, for events to take place. It reminds us that transformation is in our own hands, in the necessity, as Coetzee put it, for safe spaces in which to face difficult issues.

“I truly believe that one of the marks of any great civilisation is (its) collective achievements,” said Coetzee. “It shows the collective power of who we are as a people.”

It really does seem remarkable that, given all the difficulties and contradictions that afflict South African public life, we have an extraordinary heart — even if it is the shape of a mielie pip.

This article was originally published in The Edit Living, a complimentary magazine sent to select Sunday Times subscribers.