How do you turn an old grain silo into a modern museum?
British designer, Thomas Heatherwick mused: “How do you turn forty-two vertical concrete tubes into a place to experience contemporary culture?” The designer’s thoughts wrestled with the extraordinary physical constraints of the historic grain silo in the V&A Waterfront, Cape Town. There was no large open space within the densely packed tubes and it was not possible to experience these volumes from inside. Rather than strip out the evidence of the building’s industrial heritage, they wanted to find a way to enjoy and celebrate it.
The solution developed by Heatherwick Studio architects was to carve galleries and a central circulation space from the silos’ cellular concrete structure to create a spacious, cathedral-like central atrium filled with light from an overhead glass roof. The architects cut a cross-section through eight of the central concrete tubes. The result was an oval atrium surrounded by concrete shafts overhead and to the sides. Light streaming through the new glass roof accentuates the roundness of the tubes. The chemistry of these intersecting geometries creates an extraordinary display of edges, achieved with advanced concrete-cutting techniques. This atrium space will be used for monumental art commissions not seen in Africa before.
The other silo bins will be carved away above ground level leaving the rounded exterior walls intact. Inside pristine white cubes will provide gallery spaces not only for the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Arts Africa’s permanent collection, but also for international travelling exhibitions.
The Zeitz Museum will have 80 galleries, 18 education areas, a rooftop sculpture garden, a state-of-the-art storage and conservation area, and centres for Performative Practice, the Moving Image, Curatorial Excellence and Education. Heatherwick Studios have designed all the necessary amenities for a public institution of this scale including bookstores, a restaurant and bar, coffee shop, orientation rooms, a donors’ room, fellows’ room and various reading rooms.
The extraordinary collection of old underground tunnels will be re-engineered to create unusual education and site specific spaces for artists to interact with the original structure. Cylindrical lifts rise inside bisected tubes and stairs spiral upwards like giant drill bits. The shafts are capped with strengthened glass that can be walked over, drawing light down into the building.
The monumental façades of the silos and the lower section of the tower were maintained without inserting new windows. The thick layers of render and paint were removed to reveal the raw beauty of the original concrete.
From the outside, the greatest visible change is the creation of special pillowed glazing panels, inserted into the existing geometry of the grain elevator’s upper floors, which bulge outward as if gently inflated. By night, this transforms the building’s upper storeys into a glowing lantern or beacon in the harbour