As some readers may know, I’m currently on a tour of Southern Africa. That tour started in Cape Town, South Africa where I was able to visit a most extraordinary building – the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary African Art. The building itself really should be considered one of the works of art and so I wanted to share my impressions with you.
Originally opened in 1924, the Grain Silo dominated the Cape Town skyline. At a height of 57m, it was once the tallest man made structure in sub-Saharan Africa. Located directly on the docks, the silos were perfectly positioned to contain grain harvests for transport. However as ships got larger and required more draught and dock space, the location of the silos became impractical and so they were retired in 1995. The whole waterfront area has been beautifully redeveloped and has become both a local and tourist hub in Cape Town, but the future of the silos were unclear.
Since the early 2000’s, Jochen Zeitz was putting together a collection of contemporary art from Africa, with a plan to create the first major museum dedicated to this on the African continent. At the same time, designer Thomas Heatherwick was introduced to the silo buildings and agreed to help reinvigorate the space. In Zeitz’s hunt for the perfect space for his collection, he met with the waterfront authorities and they agreed to work together.
The two buildings, elevator and 42 silos were joined to create one building. The most spectacular space is the atrium at the entrance. It has been carved out of the interior of the silos – an “industrial cathedral” lit from above by glass ‘lids’ capping each of the silos. The shape of the cutout space was modelled from a single grain found in the silos that was 3D scanned and enlarged to 7 stories high. The structural integrity of the building relies on new “re-sleeve” concrete tubes that support the existing structure and were cast prior to the demolition work.
Lifts travel up and down the interior of two silos like pistons and a spiral stair in another silo represents a drill. The rooftop sculpture garden allows visitors to walk on the glass lids on the tops of the silos and provides beautiful views to Table Mountain and beyond. Heatherwick also designed the “pillow windows” that feature in the upper level of the silos and the exclusive hotel occupying the upper levels of the main building. Apparently Beyoncé stayed there, but too pricey for me!
Overall, this is one of the most stunning repurposing projects I have ever seen. A must visit if you find yourself in Cape Town.