Zeitz MOCAA: From grain to glory


The Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa (Zeitz MOCAA), situated at Cape Town’s Victoria and Alfred (V&A) Waterfront, opens its doors to the public on 22 September 2017.

To see a gallery of images from Zeitz Mocaa, click here.
To view a video of the museum’s construction, click here

From functioning as a grain silo in the 1920s, the building now hosts a diverse showcase of some of Africa’s best art. The architectural interventions in the building are also spectacular.

Regeneration work began in the Silo District of the Waterfront in 2010, and the development will be completed by the end of 2017. It consists of six contemporary mixed-use buildings surrounding a central circular court. At its heart stands what was an old grain silo built in 1921 – at the time the tallest building in Cape Town at 57m high. The precinct is particularly well located in close proximity to the city and the outside spaces are as much of a draw card as the buildings.

For many years the old grain silo lay derelict, with the surrounding area serving as a parking lot. The building was “hidden in plain sight,” says Mark Noble, V&A Waterfront Silo District development manager. The V&A Waterfront’s desire was to celebrate the building like a “cathedral” in the square, and its use as the new home for the Zeitz MOCAA emerged like a missing puzzle piece during 2007, when now museum director Mark Coetzee started discussions about finding a space to house contemporary African art with Jochen Zeitz. The V&A Waterfront funded the R500million redevelopment cost while Zeitz is loaning his collection as the museum’s founding collection.

Serendipitously, renowned British designer Thomas Heatherwick also had the opportunity to visit the abandoned building in 2007, and later Heatherwick Studio was appointed to design the new intervention. A partnership began with Cape Town-based architectural team Van der Merwe Miszewski Architects, Rick Brown & Associates and Jacobs Parker Architects. The concept phase of the structural design was led by Arup and implemented by local firm Sutherland.


The existing grain silo structure comprises two distinct and independent parts. The first part is a storage annex that consists of 42 connected round concrete cylinders, 33m high and 5.5m in diameter, for storing grain. The second part is an elevator tower which is a steel framed structure (with concrete infill walls) spanning the full 57m height, once used to haul grain upwards into the silo bins for sorting, cleaning and weighing.

It was decided to keep the majority of the existing building. “One of the key sustainable aspects of the project was choosing not to knock down such a vast quantity of [existing] concrete,” says Heatherwick. “We decided to deconstruct rather than construct a new mega project.” The renovation of the top half (now a hotel) of the elevator tower is the most dramatic architectural intervention visible from the outside. The concrete infill walls were removed to reveal the framed structure and huge curved “bubble” windows were installed in the openings on the first five floors (an open roof garden sits at the top). The windows are 6m high and 4m wide, and are constructed of faceted pieces of performance glazing to create a sense of soft pillows pushing outwards from the concrete frame. The existing outside wall covering – layers of cream-coloured paint – was stripped to reveal the raw concrete. The museum itself is housed in the storage annex.

Perhaps the most extraordinary part of the project is the seven-storey atrium carved through the centre of the storage annex and the lower portion of the elevator tower in the shape of a grain kernel. Stepan Martinovsky from Heatherwick Studios says most museums around the world are iconic from the outside but here, that concept “is almost inverted and the iconic piece is on the inside and draws people in”. It’s a way of respecting the heritage of the outside of the building, while sparking people’s curiosity to come inside, particularly those who might not ordinarily be inclined to visit an art museum.


The atrium is naturally ventilated, leaving the 80 different and interconnected galleries to comply with the strict Category A climate control requirements. “You can’t easily climate control the atrium space because it’s too high. Therefore, each gallery is like a little museum on its own,” says Coetzee. Skylights at the top of each silo bin ensure plenty of natural light floods into the atrium space, which eliminates the need for artificial lighting.

The world-class climate control system for the galleries, which vary quite significantly in size, not only carefully protects the art by keeping the air at 22°C and 50% humidity, but enables the museum to secure international travelling exhibitions. Unlike the raw textured concrete of the existing structure, the galleries are white boxes made of drywall materials, with concrete floors and soffits of varying heights from which artwork can be suspended. The insides of the galleries are functional and neutral with white walls and ultraviolet-filtered strip lighting. “Artists want to transform that cube into a space that’s theirs,” says Coetzee. There is a 1m service void below each floor through which the mechanical ventilation system runs, out of sight of the rest of the museum’s activities.

Conventional museums are inherently not particularly sustainable in terms of energy use because the artificial lighting and strict air-conditioning requirements can absorb up to 60% of the building’s running costs, says Coetzee. However, the Zeitz ventilation system is serviced by a sea water cooling plant (that serves the entire Silo District), which uses cool water from the ocean to assist in climate control, thus reducing the energy bill. All fittings are otherwise as energy- and water-efficient as possible. Noble says the V&A Waterfront is investigating installing a reverse osmosis desalination plant for the Silo District, which will make a difference to potable water usage, although the museum uses little water.

While on site, care was taken to recycle as much of the extracted materials as possible, explains Dale Blanshard from contractor WBHO. The concrete and brickwork used in the layer works and 7100m3 of extracted reinforcing was recycled.

“What we are also really proud of is that the entire contract was done with local contractors and labour, right down to the final grinding and polishing of the scallops,” he says.


Jochen Zeitz believes the not-for-profit museum (the first of its kind on the continent) will change people’s perception and understanding of African art, opening up the stage to international visitors and locals alike by telling the story of African history through art and culture. The museum also intends to run educational programmes to bring African art to life for children (for whom entry will always be free), as well as other public activities and events that will extend out of the building.

Coetzee echoes Zeitz’s sentiment: “You empower people when you say that their culture, visuals and artefacts are worth preserving and worth building cathedrals for. We always go and see art from elsewhere being elevated to preciousness. We need to do that for our art.”

By Mary Anne Constable

Image copyright Iwan Baan

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