Transforming V&A's grain silos into Africa's largest contemporary art museum

6th October 2017 By: Kim Cloete - Creamer Media Correspondent

Transforming V&A's grain silos into Africa's largest contemporary art museum

After four years of cutting, carving and engineering what at times seemed near impossible, the V&A Waterfront’s giant, historic grain silo has been transformed into the world’s largest museum dedicated to contemporary art from Africa.

In an architectural and engineering feat, the nearly 100-year-old grain silo, made up of vertical tubes, was shaped into the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa (Zeitz MOCAA) and opened to much acclaim in September.

The R500-million development includes 6 000 m2 of exhibition space in 100 galleries and includes a rooftop sculpture garden, a shop, restaurant and bar, state-of-the-art storage and conservation areas in the heart of the V&A Waterfront’s silo district in Cape Town.

“The museum is a symbol, an icon, of the confidence we feel about being African, the confidence that we feel about our place in the world,” says Zeitz MOCAA executive director and chief curator Mark Coetzee.

The journey to design and build the museum has been both an arduous and deeply enriching one, with challenges every step of the way. The grain silo was built in 1921, and at 57 m tall, was the tallest building in Southern Africa for over 50 years. The silo was part of the collective grain system and its use faded out with the advent of containerisation and the end of apartheid.

Ideas to transform the silo have been brewing for years. In a stroke of fortuitous timing, Coetzee’s search for a home for former Puma head, Jochen Zeitz’s world-class collection of contemporary art from Africa, blended with the vision of the V&A Waterfront. Acclaimed London-based designer, Thomas Heatherwick, was commissioned by the V&A Waterfront to do a feasibility study into a museum.

With its 24-million visitors a year, the V&A Waterfront seemed like an ideal base for the museum. But the plan demanded vision and a massive leap of faith.

“We spent days on end walking around the building. This place was full of pigeon droppings and there was no space. It was made from 118 separate compartments. There were lots of small spaces and giant tubes designed to take huge hydrostatic pressures, because of all the thousands of tons of grain it could store,” explains Heatherwick.

There was an option to demolish the building and build a new one in its place, but Heatherwick was entranced by the silo’s sense of place and history. Trillions of grains of corn had gone through this silo and onto ships over the years.

“It was silent, but you could feel the choreography that must have existed and the dynamism of the workers moving through this structure.  We could either clear away this piece of apartheid history or we could work with it and respond to it.”

Heatherwick also saw the value of attracting visitors to the museum by retaining elements of the old silo.

“It had so much character and spirit. In a world where buildings are covered in shiny cladding, whether stone, aluminium, glass or silicon, there was this structure that had this raw quality.”

Heatherwick was also acutely aware that this was to be the first museum of its kind in Africa and it needed to be something extremely special.

“In a continent bigger than Europe and North America combined, was the need for artists to show themselves. It also struck us if that if we knocked down this building and built a shiny, new spaceship, what would propel someone to get over their apprehension and go inside? There’s a danger of someone posing for a picture outside, buying a postcard, going home and saying we went to the museum.”

At one point in their planning, one of the members of the team founds a wedged plug of corn. In a spark of inspiration, a single grain of corn was digitally scanned and enlarged until it was ten storeys high. The atrium is based on the shape of the single grain of corn and forms the heart of the museum.

Heatherwick said they were also very encouraged when peeling off the paint to see that the concrete had a warmth about it.

“When we stripped off the paint, it was like Petra, like being carved by solid stone.”

But romanticism aside, it was a gruelling task.

“The thing with concrete is that while it hardens within one day, full chemical hardness takes one century. This building was reaching its century when we started cutting through it. From a craftsmen point of view, this was an enormous challenge. There was this gradual nibbling through.”

The V&A Waterfront’s development manager Mark Noble echoes the engineering and construction challenges posed by the transformation.

“We had to build a new building within the old building. The original building was built in the 1920s and only had horizontal reinforcement.  The biggest challenge was to make the building structurally sound.”

Noble explains that four different and complex sections of the building had to be constructed at the same time.

“They were inter-related structurally and if you got one bit wrong, then they would all come down, so it was highly, highly complex,” says Noble.

The galleries and the cathedral-like atrium space at the centre of the museum have been literally carved from the dense cellular structure of 42 tubes that pack the building. Ropes with diamond grids were used to cut the main chunks of concrete.  The final accuracy was an impressive centimeter or so of the computer geometry.

“In the world of construction, we are used to buildings being made by welding large elements or bolting large elements together, but this came down to hand carving. There was a different level of craftsmanship when it came to this cut,” says Heatherwick.

The silo was hollowed out and the interior carved out to make way for the gallery spaces. This was a surveying coup in itself. The geometry of each gallery capsule had to align to the neighbouring tubular space.

Group leader for the Heatherwick Studio, Mat Cash, explains that some of the gallery spaces were found space, while many white cube spaces were added on.

“In terms of displaying contemporary art some artists like to respond to the background, while others like to put purely their art on a pedestal.”

Noble agrees that the “battle scars” throughout the building form part of the architecture.

“You will see where details haven’t come together perfectly.” The original concrete has been left, without being sandblasted or painted.

The windows are a distinct feature of the museum. The glass was sourced from Belgium, but the windows were put together by a local manufacturer in Cape Town. The glass was so big that it had to be transported through the city to the silo at night. The five metre by five metre windows are made up of 54 pieces of flat glass.

“By having 54 planes it means you can be looking at a reflection of yourself, of Table Mountain, of Robben Island and the sky and clouds.”

Multiple images wrap and frame the views.

Heatherwick is full of praise for the South African design, construction and engineering teams he has worked with on the project. While Heatherwick Studio has 25 live projects in four continents, this was the first project of its kind he has worked on.

Noble echoes Heatherwick’s enthusiasm.

“We had an incredibly talented and passionate team, from the engineers to the architects to the builders. They bought into the vision and followed it all the way through.”

Apart from the founding art collection, the Zeitz Collection, which is on long-term loan, there will be different centres and institutes within the overall museum, including Centres for a Costume Institute, Photography, the Moving Image, Performative Practice and Art Education.

Together with the entire V&A Waterfront, the museum is jointly owned by Growthpoint Properties Limited and the Government Employees Pension Fund (GEPF) represented by the Public Investment Corporation (PIC), which own the V&A Waterfront. .

The V&A Waterfront has funded the redevelopment costs, and is gifting the use of the building at no cost to the institution.

Waterfront CEO David Green says the vision of the museum is to be one that would give “access to all”. Entry will be free for anyone from Africa on Wednesday mornings and anytime to all under the age of 18. Contrary to public perceptions, 72% of people who visit the V&A Waterfront are locals. He said he particularly encouraged young people and school groups. The aim is for thousands of schoolchildren to enjoy looking at the art and then make their own art in the classroom spaces.

Alongside different exhibitions and shifting trends, the building is bound to hold more surprises of its own. 

“There are still some incredible spaces that we want to use,” says Heatherwick. “In fact, we are dying to have the first skateboard event in the basement.”