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The V&A Waterfront’s new Silo Precinct is
shaping up as an inspiring hive of
art, design and cultural history.


By Hilary Prendini Toffoli


It was just a small jetty when Jan van Riebeeck created it as a provisions drop off point for Dutch sailing ships. Cape Town’s docklands didn’t get a harbour until Lloyds of London refused to insure ships in the stormy bay 200 years later, and the first breakwater stones were tipped in by Queen Victoria’s son Alfred. Since then the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront has boomed.


Latest in the development of these valuable 123 hectares is a stretch of turf where 42 giant silos were built in 1924 to store thousands of tons of grain for transport elsewhere. Conveniently positioned between two stretches of water - the Alfred Basin and the larger Victoria Basin – it was the tallest structure in sub-Saharan Africa.


Disused since 200, it has been brilliantly reimagined as the iconic heart of a R2.5bn Waterfront development. Surrounded by shiny sharp-edged new office and residential blocks, these beautifully weathered old maize-coloured columns have the heartening appearance of an ancient relic. Above them in the boxy grain lift section there’s now the Silos Hotel. Rooms alive with designer colour, and lined with uniquely pillowed floor-to-ceiling windows that have extraordinary views.


Sustainability feats of the new buildings alongside them include, in Allan Gray’s head office, the ingenious use of icy Atlantic seawater in the cooling system. But what’s really making waves is what’s now housed in the silos. The biggest collection of post-2000 African art on the continent. It’s the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary African Art, a non-profit public museum that opens on September 22.


Collected by former Puma CEO Jochen Zeitz, it consists of nine floors and almost 80 galleries of 21st century African art at its most progressive: installations, conceptualism, performances, films, photography, multimedia sculptural structures. All aiming to challenge the viewer, and all created by artists born in Africa or the diaspora. A platform for a previously neglected area that’s now exploding and fetching high prices globally.





The silos revamp was tricky. It took four years and involved British design genius Thomas Heatherwick and his team, working with local partners. The huge densely packed cylinders had none of the grand central spaces you find in most historic buildings. For the main museum hall they had to cleverly carve into these concrete tubes a central atrium that stretches up to a remote glass roof. It’s an architectural masterpiece.


As the CEO of the V&A Waterfront David Green puts it: “Thomas Heatherwick understood how to interpret the industrial narrative of the building. His design respects its heritage. By preserving the silos as a centre piece for the District and as a cultural institution, its character and personality will be honoured.”





Trevyn and Julian McGowan are indefatigable marketers of art and design. They handpick their high-octane creatives. “When designers are deeply involved in what they make – hands-on, immersed – a different kind of work emerges,” says Trevyn.


“The distance becomes greater between what is a result of process, intimacy and narrative and what is rapidly made, mass-produced or machine-led.” That’s the concept behind the one-off pieces in the McGowans’ GUILD gallery, created by major local design names like Gregor Jenkin, Cheick Diallo, Meyer von Wielligh, Conrad Hicks, John Vogel, Porky Hefer and the duo behind Dokter and Misses Adriaan Hugo and Katy Taplin.


Guild’s generous spaces include a concept store, in-house range of furniture and the Southern Guild Gallery showcasing radical design. Trevyn regards the Silo District as “an incredible hub – residential, commercial, cultural, historical, architectural - centred around a monumental museum championing African creativity. This means a very new paradigm in the African landscape. Vibrant. Positive. Innovative. Global.” 





South African jewellery designer Kirsten Goss didn’t want to miss out on the opportunity to be here either. “Zeitz MOCAA is a seminal bit of architecture,” she says. This is her fifth store in South Africa. Its luminous space age decor created by Johannesburg-based HK Studio is as stylishly playful as the necklaces, earrings and new range of diamond rings she produces with her Durban-based team.


Another chic dynamo who zeroed in on Silo turf is Polish-born fashion designer Kat van Duinen. She calls it “a dream come true.” Known since 2010 for her signature leather handbags and evening designs in sensuous satiny fabrics and jewelled colours, she and interior designer Ivan Peens have created an elegant feel for her boutique. Drapes are velvet, while covering the wall behind Kat’s flirty ruffles is a striking oil by her artist husband John Kelly Gough of a glowing nude figure stretching out of the dark.


Men too are catered for in the Silo District. A grooming emporium titillatingly titled Glasshouse Rejuvenation for Men takes the concept of metrosexuality to heroic new levels. In reassuringly masculine but luxurious surroundings – black leather and Nguni cowhide - guys can have their faces wet-shaved, their teeth whitened, and their bodies waxed, bronzed and massaged, all while watching sport and drinking beer.


Afterwards they can indulge their chocolate obsessions at Lindt (whose workshops are also great places for a birthday party) and then work it all off by renting a bicycle at UpCycles, Cape Town’s first drop-and-go bike rental company. They now have stations at the Sea Point Pavilion, the Promenade and Mandela Rhodes in the CBD.


Photo Credit: Zeitz MOCAA, View of Museum in Silo Square by Iwan Baan
Silo District Retailers, supplied by V&A Waterfront.



 See more Hilary Prendini Toffoli on Showcook… 


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