When celebrated Zeitz MOCAA architect Thomas Heatherwick saw that Johan Lotz had solved the problem of cutting flowing curves into concrete silos — the ones which make up the soaring arch in the gallery’s atrium — he was exhilarated.

“We were on a hanging scaffold 35m up and he charged over to me to give me a hug and said: ‘You’ve saved my project‚’” said the grizzled Lotz‚ an unlikely Renaissance man who specialises in solving design problems.

“It’s not every day that a retired artist of 68 gets to work on a R500-million project‚” said the graphic designer-turned-creative troubleshooter.

The engineers working on the construction of Cape Town’s new art museum had been struggling to find a way to cut smooth curves into the silos before Lotz came along.

He said: “I came up with the idea of using stainless steel rods (to guide the grinders) for the curves and this worked like a charm.”

“They had been trying for six months and could not get it exactly right. Then Thomas Heatherwick told them that they must get an artist in and Dale (Blanchard) called me.”

Blanchard is the contracts director of WBHO‚ the construction company responsible for the main cutting and demolition of silos‚ which were nearly a century old.

“Johan came in as the artistic eye‚ with the fine eye of a sculptor. The stainless steel rod system on either side of the curves was mainly developed by Johan‚ who did the polishing down to the last millimetre.”

The atrium’s concrete arches are a defining feature of Heatherwick’s new architectural wonder — whose design ranks alongside any contemporary art museum in the world.

Lotz said the concept was simple but getting it perfect was hard work.

Seven days a week for 10 months Lotz was clambering up and down scaffolding about 25m high to do polishing‚ cutting and supervising about half a dozen grinders.

“I was still working when they were carrying in the first artworks‚” said Lotz.

The first time he walked into Zeitz MOCAA he could see the potential‚ even though the space was a total wreck.

The WBHO collective‚ including Lotz‚ this year won three Fulton awards — which honour excellence and innovation in concrete design — for their contribution to its transformation.

When Lotz first met V&A Waterfront CEO Dave Green at the opening ceremony‚ Green asked “the polisher” how long he had been in the concrete business.

“I said it was the first time in my life that I had touched concrete and he said that was impossible‚” said Lotz‚ laughing.

Now he’s taking it easy back at home in Strand‚ about 40km east of Cape Town. Thirteen years ago he moved to the coast with his wife and three children.

In a lounge filled with his miniature artworks‚ family portraits in frames he has restored and furniture he has built‚ he talks about the unexpected trajectory his life took once he walked away from an executive advertising job. Read more