Twinkling like rows of cut-glass decanters in a well-stocked drinks cabinet, the faceted windows atop Cape Town’s new contemporary art museum rise as a crystal beacon above a motley jumble of wharves, warehouses and shopping malls.
The windows shine out from the crown of a majestic concrete grain silo that has stood here since the 1920s, once the tallest building in sub-Saharan Africa, now reborn as the continent’s answer to Tate Modern, which opens next week.
“We could have so easily knocked it down and built a big shiny spaceship of a museum instead,” says Thomas Heatherwick, the British designer of the R500m (£28m) Zeitz Museum of Contemporary African Art (Mocaa), the first such institution of its kind in Africa.
“But the danger would have been that people would just come to take a selfie and not go inside. In a place that doesn’t have a strong museum-going culture, our challenge was to make compelling innards, to lure people in to see the art.”
The building’s guts certainly have the jaw-dropping, selfie-friendly wow factor he was hoping for. In one of his most audacious party tricks to date, Heatherwick has excavated a gigantic ovoid atrium from the centre of the silos, revealing a thrilling space of concrete cylinders that plunge from the ceiling like carved stalactites, through which stairs spiral and glass elevators glide. It is a spectacular act of architectural mutilation that makes Gordon Matta-Clark’s penchant for cutting holes in houses look like mere tinkering.
Such a gravity-defying feat wasn’t easy – in fact, it wasn’t initially possible. The rickety 1920s concrete tubes, at just 180mm thick, weren’t capable of being chopped up so brutally, so a new 250mm sleeve of concrete had to be cast inside each of the cylinders. The building was essentially made anew before it could be sliced up in a Herculean ballet of jackhammers, diamond rope and double-bladed circular saws. Read more