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07 August, 2023

Reimagining a Cape Town icon

The Silo Hotel

The seeds of transformation

It is not often that an icon is reinvented, and it’s even rarer for this to happen in such a spectacular way as the conversion of Cape Town’s Grain Silo building into the Zeitz MOCAA Museum of Contemporary African Art, and The Silo Hotel.

Construction of the grain silos and elevator tower at the V&A Waterfront began in 1921 with the aim of creating an export facility for locally grown grain, and to support local farmers and the Table Bay area’s economy. The Grain Silo opened for business in 1924, and that November, the first ship set sail for Europe carrying a cargo of grain from Cape Town. (Incidentally, the name of that pioneering vessel lives on in the name of The Willaston Bar in The Silo Hotel).

The Grain Silo was unmissable – at 57m high, it was the tallest building in Cape Town for over 50 years. Originally painted a yellow colour, it was visible from miles out to sea, and served as a welcome sign for weary mariners.

Pictured: The historic Grain Silo

A new life

Changes in agriculture and global trade meant that the Grain Silo became less useful over time. The last consignment of grain was shipped out in 1995, and ultimately the building was decommissioned six years later. From this point on, it began to fall into disrepair and soon became derelict.

Award-winning London architect Thomas Heatherwick was first shown the Grain Silo in 2006, and it’s clear that the seeds of an idea were sown at that precise moment. By 2014, Heatherwick’s design concept – which would see the 42 original silos – essentially giant concrete tubes carved into some 6000m2 (64 600 sq.ft.) of gallery and atrium space.

These spaces, which were once used to hold and grade maize from all over South Africa, would instead host vital displays of contemporary artworks created by artists in Africa and the diaspora, as a way of ensuring that African stories would be told by African voices and images.

Pictured: A train offloading grain at the historic Grain Silo


The past is revealed

During the renovations, a further link to Cape Town’s rich history was uncovered. Excavations revealed a shipwreck (estimated to be at least 200 years old, and showing how the shoreline has fluctuated over the centuries) was discovered. Confirming Cape Town’s longstanding status as a trading post and site of special strategic value (as well as an arts hotspot), both coconut shells and cannonballs were found among the timbers of the long-lost ship.

Before Zeitz MOCAA opened in 2017, the vestiges of the original yellow paint were removed to reveal the wonderfully weathered concrete surface beneath. One of the most distinctive features of the new building is the presence of the unique pillow windows, all of which were manufactured in South Africa. Each of the 82 windows is made up of 56 hand-cut glass panes, and had to be lifted into place by crane.

Pictured: The Silo Hotel’s iconic pillowed-glass windows

An icon reimagined

In a neat coincidence, construction of the Grain Silo in the 1920s and its repurposing and renovation in the 2010s took around five years. The six floors above the Zeitz MOCAA became The Silo Hotel, one of the jewels in The Royal Portfolio crown, which opened in March 2017. With Thomas Heatherwick as the architect and Liz Biden as the interior designer, The Silo Hotel is the crowning glory of the reimagined Grain Silo. In this way, one Cape Town icon has become two, and a place forever associated with seeds has grown into something entirely unexpected, and entirely wonderful.

Pictured: The Silo Hotel

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