The Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa—or Zeitz MOCAA for short—recently received first place in ArchDaily's Refurbishment in Architecture awards, with its striking design transforming a formerly derelict industrial building into an iconic landmark in South Africa’s oldest working harbor. Developed by the V&A Waterfront in Cape Town and designed by Heatherwick Studio, the mixed-use project is now “the world’s largest museum dedicated to contemporary art from Africa and its diaspora.” To celebrate the award, we sat down with group leader Matthew Cash to discuss the challenges faced during the project, its cultural importance to Africa, and the practice’s interest in refurbishment as a whole.
AD: Tell us a bit about yourself and your role within Heatherwick Studio.
MC: My name’s Matthew Cash and I’m a group leader at Heatherwick Studio. I run a cluster of projects, about seven at the moment, and I have been the group leader responsible for the Zeitz MOCAA from the very beginning.
AD: How did the special context of the Zeitz MOCAA influence the initial approach to the design?
MC: The interesting thing about the building is that it was completed in 1921, and had been sitting on the harbor for the best part of 100 years. It’s split into two buildings: there’s the elevator tower, and the storage annex next to it, and due to heritage restrictions no surrounding building could be taller than the storage annex. This meant that the elevator tower would always be the tallest building on the waterfront, and this particular characteristic was quite important because we knew that regardless of your approach, you’ll always be able to see that building from both Cape Town and within the V+A waterfront itself.
Being disused since 2001, it was really an unloved building, so we thought the elevator tower had to act as a signifier of its repurposing and regeneration. Its location on the waterfront led us to look at the analogy of a lighthouse to signify this change, and this was a strong influence at the beginning of the scheme.
AD: With regards to the program of the building, what is its cultural importance in South Africa and the continent as a whole?
MC: Programmatically we were excited by the V+A Waterfront’s passion and excitement for promoting cultural uses within the space, not only for commercial success but for Cape Townians, South Africans and Africans as a whole. This was part of the drive to do the project. By linking up with Jochen Zeitz, who already had an art collection, we were staggered to discover the level of ambition being brought to the project—that we would be creating the biggest museum created on the African continent for 100 years. This seemed extraordinary to me when you compare it to Europe and America, who seem to build a new museum every six months.
I hope this project is to some degree a call to arms. The interesting model of museums in Europe, for example, is really driven by governments, who contribute a substantial amount of money toward the development of arts and culture within the nation. In South Africa—and Africa as a whole—there are other challenges that need to be addressed from a governmental perspective, such as to provide basic amenities for South Africans as a collective. Understandably, promotion of cultural systems is not high on their list to invest their money in. This project was being paid for and funded by a developer, where they wanted to create a new cultural institution to give something back. What we are hoping to show is that maybe there are other models in which you can create cultural institutions in a new way, for Africa and other regions. It was exciting to do something new not just from a building perspective, but also from a funding perspective as well.
AD: How did the culture, art and iconic brief influence the design decisions you took, and the subsequent space that was created?
MC: When we met with Jochun Zeitz and saw some of his artworks, we became conscious that while they were all so incredible, they were also quite varied. What we were trying to create was a platform for African art, and not take a particular piece or particular artist and bring that to the building.
AD: Of the three winners of the Refurbishment in Architecture Award, what sets your project apart is the restrictions the original building presented and the unique space you were almost forced to create. There’s a quote that says "the project has become about imagining an interior carved from within an infrastructural object whilst celebrating the building’s character." What were the main challenges the building presented to you and the team during the design process?
MC: The first challenge was that from very early on we wanted to be respectful of the existing building. It was such a powerful emblem on the waterfront and it had a soulfulness when you moved around inside it, so whatever we were going to do had to be more of a symbiotic relationship between the intervention and the existing structure.
The second challenge was more about how do you create a space for people. The majority of the building was a storage bin for grain—it wasn’t supposed to have people inside it. So how do you create the spaces people need, and art needs, in a way that doesn’t just strip away the existing building, but reveals it instead?
The third challenge was the existing building’s actual construction. It was a slipform concrete [construction] in the storage annex, which was almost 100 years old. Concrete takes 100 years to reach its maximum hardness, so elements of the structure were incredibly tough, while others were very weak due to spoiling and other structural imperfections. Carving into a structure that was simultaneously tough and soft was a real challenge, and it was almost archaeology—revealing the layers and the history and then having to adjust and adapt the design accordingly.
AD: One of the most striking things about the project is the way you’ve dealt with what was such a solid, unknown feature in the large concrete tubes—could you talk a bit about the design process that led you to this decision?
MC: We knew we had to take some of the bins away to create the space for the galleries, and when we were experimenting with the removal of this space we realized it created quite an interesting, compelling geometry. It reminded us of when you cut an ant farm, where once you slice it you reveal how the building works, and the design was relatively quick to iterate and come to a point that we thought was compelling. The execution of this started out digitally: point cloud surveys of the existing bins, CNC digital formwork, all of the more technical aspects occurring at the beginning. However, the bins themselves were imperfect, varying in thickness and verticality, so it was near impossible to take a very precise digital form and put our ideas into an imprecise existing structure. We worked with the contractors in a very old school surveying-and-setting-out technique to account for this, dealing with variations on site.
AD: On-site there must have been many challenges—could you pick out one in particular, and did the design change in any way as a result of this?
MC: The cutting of the concrete. We experimented with thermal lances, all sorts of diamond wire cutting techniques, jigs—and we found that each technique had a particular restriction. Eventually, we found a combination to carve the form we wanted. The concrete cutting method we chose meant we couldn’t actually do 3D curves, having to create ruled surfaces along the edges. You can’t really pick this up in the design due to the fact we remodeled many times to hide this. It was quite an iterative process where the methodology of cutting, our aspirations and the setting out of the bins all influenced each other.
AD: Did the restriction of the existing silo building encourage the creativity of the project?
MC: Yes, having the existing building gives you an anchor. Design can go in all sorts of different directions when you have a blank sheet of paper, but having the restriction of the existing building gives you a thorny design challenge immediately, allowing you to iterate and construct around. I think that was really helpful for us because when we first looked at the project it didn’t have a program or a function to go inside it yet. In a way, the project was the building—how it would be repurposed—and it was a conversation with a client, and the building itself, that let us know what functions might be appropriate to it. It’s always exciting to have something to push against.
AD: Do the various refurbishment projects at Heatherwick Studio share a similar design ethos to that shown in the Zeitz MOCAA?
MC: We use a terminology here that is “reimagining heritage.” Some of the more successful larger scale developments stitch into the city; they don’t obliterate a large piece of it and insert something that’s completely new. As a designer, refurbishments give you a launch point, which is very intriguing, and what we try to do when we approach an existing structure is to think about how we can imagine it changing to accommodate the new use. Quite often that existing structure was designed to do a certain job, and as that job changes and evolves, so the building has to change and evolve to suit that new reality. It’s really about enquiring as to how the building would like to change to accommodate that. The silo project was about a balance of this. It shows on the outside it has been repurposed through the pillow windows, but maintains some of the solidity and spirit of the original building, without trying to compromise it.
See our article about the project here.
Read about the winning projects in ArchDaily's Refurbishment in Architecture Award.