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Inside Thomas Heatherwick’s Cape Town Stunner

The Silo Hotel and Zeitz MOCAA in South Africa reimagine contemporary design

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As I approached Cape Town’s Victoria & Alfred Waterfront, a towering building came into view. The South African sun bounced from its 82 convex windows, 25 feet tall each, like massive diamonds of reflecting light. The 56 panels that made up each window formed a kaleidoscope of changing colors. As if in homage to the history of South Africa’s diamond mining history, they dazzled. I could not turn my eyes away.

Like a rare jewel, people are drawn to this place, formerly a 1920s-era grain-storage facility. Now, the 42 columnar silos house the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa (MOCAA) and the grain elevator tower has been turned into the six-story Silo Hotel.

The dual-purpose building was transformed over a three-year period by celebrated designer Thomas Heatherwick’s London-based Heatherwick Studio. Today crowds are milling about its exterior walls, wanting to stand next to it and explore inside of it, spinning in Heatherwick’s signature Spun Chairs outside of it, and absorbing the metamorphosis of what is South Africa’s most discussed recent work of architecture, art and interior design.

At the root of the ambitious project was the intent to preserve and display the best of African contemporary art. After scouring the continent for a suitable location to house his collection of contemporary African and diasporic art, ex–Puma CEO and Chairman Jochen Zeitz settled on the silos, partnering with the waterfront to meticulously redevelop them. Now, Zeitz’s collection (on long-term loan) makes up the museum’s foundation, considered the most extensive and representative showcase of its kind.

“Zeitz MOCAA constitutes a re-imagining of a museum within an African context: celebrate Africa preserving its own cultural legacy, writing its own history and defining itself on its own terms,” says Mark Coetzee, the museum’s executive director and chief curator.

Converting these tightly packed concrete tubes into spaces suitable for displaying art began with carving out an atrium to form the museum’s heart. It provides access to the gallery floors, but walking through it feels like an exploration of a newly discovered cave, or the nave of a Brutalist cathedral.

While the building and museum are an achievement, so too is  the extraordinary Silo Hotel. Although the hotel is located on the six stories above the largest collection of contemporary African art in the world, it houses its own impressive, complementing collection, showcasing both up-and-coming and established artists such as Cyrus Kabiru and Pieter Hugo, alongside commissioned pieces by Frances Goodman, Jody Paulsen and Pierre Carl Vermeulen.

In addition to art, the hotel houses several restaurants and lounges, a rooftop bar with 360-degree views of Cape Town and a small but spectacularly effective spa, plus 28 spacious rooms and one penthouse.

Complementing the building’s stolid exterior, the hotel’s interiors—executed by its owner-cum-designer Liz Biden—animate the concrete walls with color and eclecticism. Upon entering, one is immediately inundated with color by way of photography by Athi-Patra Ruga and light from Haldane Martin’s contemporary chandelier, which hangs from the entryway’s double volume ceiling. Continuing up to the sixth floor, where the check-in desk, the Granary Café and the Willaston Bar are located, one is greeted by an original machine head emerging from the former distribution floor of the grain silo–working house.

Each room is unique. My two-level suite represented the images and colors of Africa through fabrics, and an Ardmore ceramic sculpture in the entry. Biden draws inspiration from her travels around the world, making use of her collection of art and artifacts in the hotel’s designs alongside commissions by local artists and designers.

Light fills every space, thanks to several balloon-like windows, which offer guests views of the city below and of the iconic Table Mountain. In the morning I watched from my bed as the flattop mountain was illuminated by the sun, and later in the afternoon as clouds dropped over her like a shroud, which locals call her “tablecloth.”

Later, as evening set, I walked along the waterfront, and could still see The Silo Hotel’s illuminated windows shining in the darkness, beckoning the city and the world.