The past couple of decades have witnessed a flourishing of avant garde architectural projects designed to put specific cities on the cultural map. Celebrity architects have been given free rein to create construction eye-candy that will act as a both tourist magnet and aesthetic ambassador. The big daddy of them all, and probably the inspiration for the many unorthodox buildings that have followed, was Paris’s Centre Pompidou, designed by Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers; often cited, with much justification, as a 20th-century architectural marvel.
Now I have no quarrel with this application of architecture, and I have enjoyed visiting many of the resultant creations. It is also true to say that I would probably never have chosen to visit cities, like Bilbao, without their landmark galleries, stadia, or bridges.
But many of the resultant buildings also leave me feeling somewhat conflicted. While I celebrate the fact that they show society taking architecture and the build environment seriously, the feeling persists that too many of these ‘iconic’ structures have rather more to say about the egos of the commissioning bodies or individuals, and the chosen architects themselves, than they do about the culture and history of the location.
But when it comes to MOCAA, in Cape Town, South Africa all my reservations fall away. I think this is one of the most outstanding architectural achievements of recent years, and it also seems to fulfill all the other functions of these other destination buildings.
So I am delighted that Thomas Heatherwick’s creation was crowned winner in the New and Old – Completed Buildings category at the World Architecture Festival, the world’s largest international architectural event, which has just opened in Amsterdam.
Heatherwick Studio’s Zeitz MOCAA (Museum of Contemporary African Art) project makes inventive, creative, and intriguing reuse of industrial grain silos and features an entrance lobby that is a truly unique and evocative space.
Built on Cape Town’s waterfront in the 1920s, and once the city’s tallest building, Heatherwick’s team have carved huge sections out of the building’s tubular interior to create a complex network of more than 100 gallery spaces. By hollowing out the inside of these historic grain silos, Heatherwick has created a contemporary cathedral that is truly awe inspiring.
The museum is one of several facilities that Heatherwick Studio is creating within the grain silo building, which forms part of the V&A Waterfront, a harbour-side complex filled with bars and restaurants.
Zeitz MOCAA centres around a huge atrium, based on the shape of a single grain silo that was scaled up to span the full 27 metre height of the structure. The key to the project’s success is the way in which the essence of the original tubularity has been preserved, while at the same time developing a functional and effective gallery space.
Where the tubes were cut back, the edges were polished to create a visible contrast with the rough aggregate of the old concrete. Laminated glass was also added to give a mirrored finish. Externally, the building features faceted glass panelled windows that allow light into the atrium, while also creating a stunning kaleidoscopic effect.
Preserving and enhancing this important landmark while simultaneously developing a sustainable cultural institution to preserve, and encourage creativity, makes this museum a truly important cultural landmark.
The 9,500 sq. metre museum includes 6,500 sq. metres of exhibition, a rooftop sculpture garden, storage and conservation areas, a gift shop, a restaurant and bar, and various reading rooms.
Jochen Zeitz, Co-chair of Zeitz MOCAA’s Board of Trustees, stated: “We wanted the museum to be as representative of Africa as possible. To celebrate its history, its culture, its diversity, and its future with a focus on art from the 21st century. Most importantly, this is an institution for all of Africa.”
David Green, CEO of the V&A Waterfront and Co-chair of Zeitz MOCAA’s Board of Trustees, adds: “At its heart, Zeitz MOCAA is centred around the promise of creating a museum that showcases the best talent and creativity of Africa and grants access to everyone. With its opening, we are seeing our vision of an accessible, contemporary art museum reach fruition.”
Thomas Heatherwick says of his design: “The idea of turning a giant disused concrete grain silo made from 116 vertical tubes into a new kind of public space was weird and compelling from the beginning. We were excited by the opportunity to unlock this formerly dead structure and transform it into somewhere for people to see and enjoy the most incredible artworks from the continent of Africa. The technical challenge was to find a way to carve out spaces and galleries from the 10-storey-high tubular honeycomb without completely destroying the authenticity of the original building. The result was a design and construction process that was as much about inventing new forms of surveying, structural support, and sculpting, as it was about normal construction techniques.
A new post by Joe Simpson, Diary of a Tile Addict, November 2018.