Q&A: Thomas Heatherwick on Zeitz MOCAA

WORDS Malibongwe Tyilo

Come February 2017, the V&A Waterfront in Cape Town will be home to the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa. A first for the continent, it will house the world’s largest collection of African contemporary art. The project will see the 90-year-old grain silos at the V&A Waterfront transformed by acclaimed English designer Thomas Heatherwick. We talked to him during his latest visit to the building site.

What attracted you to this project?

In my studio, we try and find projects where it feels possible to make a difference. It was fascinating to find that Cape Town had no institute where contemporary African artists could show their work, and then to find the whole of South Africa had no museum of contemporary African art. It was motivating.

I am also interested in finding authenticity for each place. New buildings can look great on a postcard, but when you stand there and feel all those materials and ingredients, they might not give off any spirit or character. So, here was a building full of spirit and character. That’s where it was deeply moving.

What are some of the challenges of turning the 42 silos into a fully functional building?

The biggest artistic and technically most challenging aspect was cutting the silos – a central detail you will notice the minute you walk in because the cut needs to feel immaculate, like a hot wire going through butter. Of course, that isn’t actually how we achieve it, so the craftsmanship is important.

Plans have also been revealed for a hotel in the building?

It’s an orthogonal, simple square building, but we didn’t want to just put clear sheets of glass as walls so we got pillow glass, which makes the building feel like it’s breathing. The glass catches the light and acts like a lantern to draw people to the museum.