On a blustery spring morning in Cape Town, what was once a disused industrial area next to the V&A Waterfront sang with life. The occasion: the ribbon-cutting ceremony of the Zeitz Mocaa (pronounced “zights mocka”), an art museum promising to be to Cape Town what the Tate is to London, or the Met is to New York.

Speakers at the event competed to produce ever-more hyperbolic metaphors to describe the significance of the day. “You are amongst the first to witness the writing of a new chapter in South Africa’s history,” V&A Waterfront board chair Elias Masilela told the assembled crowd.1

Archbishop Desmond Tutu, in a rare public appearance, pretended to take a phone call from Nelson Mandela in heaven in which Tutu was told: “Yes! This is what we were fighting for!”

They were singing the praises of a building which was once the tallest structure in sub-Saharan Africa: a 1920s grain silo now transformed into a grand repository for African art under the vision of British architect Thomas Heatherwick. At a cost of more than R500-million, borne by the V& A Waterfront corporation – and by extension its investors, the currently besieged Public Investment Corporation – the silo has become what is certain to be one of the most photographed edifices on the African continent.

Heatherwick said at the opening that he deliberately did not want the building’s impact to be carried in its external frame, out of fear that people would arrive to take a selfie before it and then leave. Indeed, the magic of its interior is hard to predict from its exterior, dominated by the protruding “flies’ eyes” windows which actually belong to the luxury hotel seated atop the museum.

Step inside, however, and the hype is well-founded. Heatherwick has carved a breathtaking cathedral from an industrial storehouse he describes as being originally “filled with pigeon poo in quantities I’ve never seen before in my life”. Out of – in Heatherwick’s words – an “extraordinary, weird space made of tubes”, the British architect has created a soaring space which gives grandiose life to an equally towering ambition. Read more