If museums replaced churches in modern times, art became the new cult. To inaugurate the third millennium Tate Modern opened the door to the repurposed industrial building on the Southbank of the Thames in London; initiating more than pure celebration of the cult of enjoying contemporary art it became an icon and model to re-imagine the art container or gallery space as well as a powerful means for city branding.
If some predicted the influential role of the Turbine Hall building we now have extensive proof of the global impact that Herzog and De Meuron’s design has produced. After more than a decade and far from the cloudy English sky a new leading contemporary art institution in Cape Town, South Africa, chose to be represented by an iconic and historic grain silo complex in a strategic area of the city, right next to the V&A Waterfront, paraphrasing in many ways its British progenitor.
The Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa (Zeitz MOCAA) will give space and justice to the Zeitz Collection (one of the most extensive of African contemporary art) which has been donated to the public non-profit new institution by Jochen Zeitz. The museum is scheduled to open to the public at the end of 2016.
Even though the project was announced in November last year (as a partnership between V&A Waterfront and Jochen Zeitz), only last week plans have been revealed about the new building design signed by London-based practice Heatherwick Studio run by designer Thomas Heatherwick.
The English designer has been challenged by the existing structure and produced interesting solutions and unusual outcomes. Facing the 42 huge concrete tubes (33-metres high, 5.5 metres diameter) he pointed out that, “unlike many conversions of historic buildings which have grand spaces ready to be repurposed [like the Turbine Hall], this building has none. The project has become about imagining an interior carved from within an infrastructural object whilst celebrating the building’s character.”
The British designer have masterly sculpted the void, carving the atrium of the building out of the giant tubes to reveal and exploit the character of the former structure and at the same time constructing a cutting-edge space to view contemporary art and sort out the technical and practical questions. The aesthetic qualities of the bowels of the concrete tubes seem appropriate to experiencing art. The space evokes novels like “A Journey to the Centre of the Earth” and science fiction visionary imagery.
The designer has been able to make visible the hardly-visible and create an interior of outstanding character and abundant wow-factor. On the other hand, however, he has just transposed the vocabulary introduced by colleagues in precedent experiments (including the successful London example). Apart from the listed building structure and its historical value this design proposal gives homage to a model that we can certainly define as a consolidated practice (as well as a proper new typology) in museum design.
The combination of a giant captivating atrium accompanied by plain functional spaces is smartly interpreted; the “silos hall” will be surrounded by white-cube-style galleries for a total of 80 galleries and 6000sqm of exhibition space. In addition to the exhibition space the building programme will offer a large variety of activities and dedicated spaces: 18 education areas, a rooftop sculpture garden, storage and conservation area; centres for performative practice, the moving image, curatorial excellence and education. Finally the old underground tunnels will be used to host site-specific spaces for artists.
Heatherwick’s team adopted a popular and tested formula to re-invent the existing building in an original manner; it also attempted to apply this successful model and typology to an urban context in a non-western country. Only when completed and opened to the public we will have a better understanding of its effect on the local and global art market as well as on the city future development.
How this project can change the image of the city? Will it celebrate the entry of Cape Town into the global art market?