Africa’s first museum of contemporary art unites three visions. Art collector Jochen Zeitz, curator Mark Coetzee and the V&A Waterfront banded together to conceive the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa (Zeitz MOCAA), which occupies nine floors of a historical – and heritage-protected – grain silo in South Africa’s Cape Town. The 9,475-sq-m museum – whose permanent collection was accumulated privately over the past 15 years by Zeitz himself – includes over 6,000 sq-m of display space.

Zeitz MOCAA shares its premises with The Silo Hotel, a project by hospitality group The Royal Portfolio. London-based Heatherwick Studio was responsible for both the interior of the museum and the exterior of the entire building, and The Royal Portfolio’s Liz Biden designed the hotel spaces. Externally, the biggest visible change to the original structure is the addition of glazing that is inserted into the geometry of the façade: pillowed windows bulge out as if slightly inflated.

Normally we supervise a building process; this was a demolition process

Inside the museum, the impressive transformation by Heatherwick Studio was no mean feat. The architects were confronted with a 1920s building comprising 42 concrete silos, each 33 m tall and 5.5 m wide. Slicing into the walls, Heatherwick’s team carved out a large oval atrium – an industrial cathedral – symbolically shaped like an oversize kernel of grain. Although the building was dramatically overhauled, the architects retained a number of elements from the silo’s storage days, such as train tracks, track sheds and a hydraulic accumulator. Galleries, on the other hand, are standardized white boxes with grey concrete floors. Offering no site-specificity, they make sure that all attention goes to the art and not to the setting.

‘We didn’t add that much,’ explained Stepan Martinovsky, project leader at Heatherwick Studio. ‘We actually created by removing. In most cases, an old building is torn down or only the façade remains, while the interior gets an upgrade. But in this case we decided to celebrate the building’s history – to expose its anatomy and open it up. People can now experience it from the inside.’ Martinovsky said that the team, eager to work on a heritage site, tried to keep as much intact as possible. Their interventions were mainly functional: stairs, lifts and a bridge. ‘We made our additions from metal, just like the old machines that are still visible in the building.’ Other areas they conserved are underground tunnels and spaces now used as lobbies and an atrium.

Martinovsky mentioned the huge challenges faced by both Heatherwick Studio and South African contractors WBHO in their efforts to make the project a reality. ‘Normally we supervise a building process; this was a demolition process,’ he explained. ‘Only after things were taken away could we see whether the result was what we’d hoped it would be – and then continue our exploration of the building. The design and construction processes were as much about inventing new forms of surveying, sculpting and supporting the building structurally as they were about applying typical construction techniques.’

This piece was originally featured in Frame 119.