Thomas Heatherwick's studio transforms a South African grain silo into a striking new museum

Updated 19th September 2017
Thomas Heatherwick's studio transforms a South African grain silo into a striking new museum
Written by Stephy Chung, CNN
Contributors Lianne Turner, CNN
Africa's first major institution dedicated to modern art, the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa (MOCAA), is set to open this month. Located in a former grain silo in Cape Town, the new museum will house what many expect to be the world's leading collection of contemporary African art.
Built in 1921, the 187-foot silo was once the tallest building in the southern hemisphere. Consisting of 42 vertical concrete tubes, the structure was used to store and grade maize from all over the country.
The silo has since become an icon of South Africa's legislative capital. A $38-million-dollar-development to turn the building into a museum was announced in 2013. British architect Thomas Heatherwick was commissioned to produce "an architectural intervention inspired by its own historic character," according to a press statement released by Zeitz MOCAA.
"The project called for a solution that would be unique to Africa, and create the highest possible quality of exhibition space for the work displayed inside," the statement continued.
Using this brief, Heatherwick Studio set about carving into the silo's tubes. Directly inspired by the building's former uses -- while looking to both preserve and reinvent history -- the firm created a large central space with smaller offshoots that will be used as galleries.
"We're used to the idea that 'outsides' are the iconic or memorable bit," Heatherwick told CNN. "But how could you make an inside be memorable and compelling?"
The resulting geometries reveal a fascinating play of light and space.
As Heatherwick Studio's group leader Mat Cash explained in a recent interview with CNN: "We figured out that the best kind of cutting medium to use would be the object that had been stored in these grain silos for so many years. So, we took a singular grain of corn ... and we supersized it and used that to scallop out the heart (of the silo's storage tubes)."
"It became in a way like mining and carving out," Heatherwick explained. "It created a different kind of vision that is non-religious but we realized with the daylight coming from above, it could have a powerful emotional effect.
"And with all my studio's projects, we are really interested in this humanistic dimension. There was so much soulfulness, character and idiosyncrasy in this existing structure, so keeping and retaining that felt much more exciting ... rather than wiping it clean and attempting to make something new."
In the video above, Thomas Heatherwick takes CNN Style on a tour of the Zeitz MOCAA.