Heatherwick Studio at Design Indaba

Heatherwick Studio at Design Indaba

By Rebecca L. Weber
Architect Thomas Heatherwick unveils plans to turn a century-old grain silo in Cape Town, South Africa, into the continent's premiere museum devoted to modern African art.

Each year in Cape Town, creatives of all types—architects, chefs, musicians, techies—gather for Design Indaba and its intense program of energizing talks and expo. After a few days, most participants then head back to their homes across the world.

Zeitz Museum of Contemporary African Art"This is a cellular building made from a bunch of tubes. Big, big concrete tubes," Heatherwick says. From the very beginning, one of the questions was whether or not to keep the building.

While shiny new museums are popping up all over Asia, that approach didn’t make sense here in Cape Town. "Our role has been to find a language that keeps the soul of this building that functioned for so many years."

Photo courtesy: Heatherwick Studio

But when Thomas Heatherwick of London’s Heatherwick Studio visited nine years ago, he made lasting connections that have led to the 2014 Indaba’s big reveal: He is leading the team that will renovate Cape Town’s old Grain Silo into the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art in Africa (MOCAA), the largest and most ambitious collection of its kind on the continent. Trained as an architect, Heatherwick is known for an eclectic portfolio of innovative public pieces small and large, as seen here in the slideshow. We sat down with Heatherwick in Cape Town to talk about how he intends to transform an abandoned building that nobody could figure out what to do with into a museum unlike any we’ve seen before.

Knocking the Grain Silo down and starting over again was an option, but not a terribly appealing one to Heatherwick given the building’s idiosyncratic eight-story concrete tubes and its obvious rawness. "What are you going to make that’s more interesting?" he says.

By cutting the square and round tubes at angles—as well as the interesting bits in between—a central space will be carved out, and flooded with light from curved glass, to stay "true to the structure but fresh to the eye."

Photo courtesy: Heatherwick Studio

Tubiness at its best: "The project has been about carving out space in which African art can be displayed. In the process of doing that, we’re celebrating the cellular structure of this building," Heatherwick says.

Photo courtesy: Heatherwick Studio

Built in the 1920s, and used until the 1990s, the Grain Silo was once the tallest building in the city. It stands adjacent to both the V&A Waterfront, the upscale mall complex that is the single biggest tourist draw in the country, and a working harbor. "It’s been the elephant in the room," Heatherwick says.

Photo COurtesy: V&A Waterfront

Ten Thousand Waves, the nine-screen installation by Isaac Julien, pictured here while on display at the Museum of Modern Art, will be part of MOCAA’s permanent collection and be featured in MOCAA’s atrium. Other highlights include pieces from Africans from all over the continent and the diaspora, including work by Kudzanai Chiurai, Nandipha Mntambo, Edson Chagas, and Zanele Muholi. Mark Coetzee, the collection’s curator, is originally from South Africa and says building a contemporary art museum in Africa is a dream come true. "I’ve always wanted to do this since I was a kid," Coetzee says. "Normally collectors collect what they collect, and at a certain point, they say ‘Let’s start a museum,’" he says. By contrast, Jochen Zeitz gave Coetzee the go-ahead to build a collection with the scale and ambition for a museum from the outset.

Photo courtesy: Isaac Julien

Garden BridgeUnlike a pricey ride to the top of the Shard, London’s tallest building, visitors to Heatherwick’s proposed Garden Bridge would be able to take their time across the slowest bridge in the city. Rather than yet another skyward blue construction, this is a horizontal green one: a pedestrian garden-cum-bridge across the Thames.

"It mustn’t feel like we went to the bridge shop," Heatherwick says. "The hero of a garden bridge must be the garden." Trees will be planted near the load-bearing columns.

Heatherwick credits the idea to his friend, actor Joanna Lumley (of AbFab fame), and its public appeal to the proven success of New York’s High Line. Funding for the £150,000,000 ($250,000,000) project is to come from private donors; Heatherwick says that they’re nearing the two-thirds mark and hopes that all London lovers will donate, be it a penny or a pound. Visit

gardenbridgetrust.org to learn more.

Photo courtesy: Arup.

Learning HubAlready more than a year into construction, the Learning Hub at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore obliterates the notion of monotonous university buildings.

With endless books and MOOCs available online, Heatherwick jokes that these days you could do an entire PhD in bed, adding that the only purpose of attending university these days is to meet people.

To facilitate real world connections and learning—and to break down the traditional layout of professor on one side of the room, with students on the other—the Learning Hub’s tutorial rooms have no corners.

Photo courtesy: Heatherwick Studio

London’s New BusThere’s arguably no better view of London than the one from the front of one of its double-decker buses. Heatherwick took on a redesign of London’s iconic transportation by looking at them as "two-story buildings on wheels," as evidenced by the curved glass that follows the movement of people. He wanted passengers to "feel the theater, the splendor of moving around one of the incredible cities of the world," and so attended to details like reinventing bench seats and giving a little more love to the staircase, while also striving to reduce energy costs by 40 percent. Some 200 new buses are already on the streets.

Photo by: Iwan Baan

Olympic CauldronA billion people tuning into the Olympics’ opening ceremony meant all eyes on the torch—or at least on the person carrying it. Heatherwick says nobody remembers the Olympic Cauldron. "People remember people, not objects." So the London Olympics featured seven young athletes carrying copper cones of fire—"Gold, silver, and bronze were busy for those two weeks"—and touched the cauldron with their torches until the flames spread around in circles. Some 204 stems, each representing a country, rose together to form a single massive flame—truly more than the sum of its parts.

Photo by: Edmund Sumner


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