Like others, I was swept away by the excitement of the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa when it first opened in the V&A Waterfront in September 2017. It’s an architectural achievement like nothing else on the continent and the first museum of its scale dedicated to contemporary African art. And, here it sits on the shores of a city, which might very soon run out of water. With a sense of urgency and, increasingly, a sense of panic our minds are focusing on scarcity of resources and on climate change.
Which is why when visiting the museum, visitors are now thinking of its sustainability. We know the building was originally a silo for grains to be sorted and stored before being sent up or out of the country. We know it was built in 1924 and became redundant in 2000. Later, it was earmarked by V&A Waterfront developers to become a museum and repurposed by English starchitect Thomas Heatherwick and his team for its current purpose, a not-for-profit cultural institution at a cost of R500 million.
But do we know whether it’s sustainable?
There are many ways to assess the sustainability of a building. Some are technical. Technical sustainability, says Elizabeth Davies, a Cape Town architect, is measured by how many of the earth’s resources the building consumes. It’s fairly easy to put techniques in place which reduce impact and even easier to quantify this.
In this instance, one of the key advantages is that it is an existing building. The Intergovernmetal Panel on Climate Change says it’s incredibly important to improve the performance of existing building stock. This can often be done “at far lower cost than would be required to raze and replace them.” On this score, Zeitz MOCAA does well: Heatherwick told journalists last year that his team had to meet a budget that “is a lot of money in the context of Africa, but very small in a global context of making an institution. This cost just over 30 million pounds when the Tate extension was, I think, 270 million pounds. This was a very economical exercise.”
“We could have knocked it down,” he says. “We could have knocked far more of it down… It was the authentic retention of this building that stopped thousands of tons of lorry driving, the bringing and dumping of concrete and it stopped the tooling and electricity necessary to knock it down.”
The climate control system used in the gallery spaces makes use of a ventilation system serviced by a seawater cooling plant
Other technical factors considered sustainable are the re-use of materials, natural light and natural ventilation. The climate control system used in the gallery spaces makes use of a ventilation system serviced by a seawater cooling plant that serves the entire Silo District, a commercial and leisure district in Cape Town’s waterfront district. This uses cool water from the ocean to assist in climate control, according to Earthworks, a magazine focussed on sustainably built environments.
These techniques form part of the bigger picture of the precinct. Mark Noble, planning and development manager at the V&A Waterfront, says that the V&A Waterfront has adopted “a rigorous approach to green construction, sustainable design principles, and the efficient use of natural and energy resources in all our development projects, including the Silo District and Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa”. All the buildings in the Silo District are designed according to Green Building Council of South Africa regulations and many have achieved between 4- and 6-star green ratings from the GBCSA for their design and completed construction, says Noble. Among the features he mentions are the advanced water monitoring system; low-flow plumbing fittings to ensure minimal water use; and non-potable water used for irrigation and window washing.
Besides the technical aspects of a building Heatherwick talks about sustainability as “a funny thing.” He says, “It tends to just get judged on how much energy usage is saved, and how little water is used… The real meaning of sustainability is far more complex. It includes the human dimension, and assessing how much possibility a building has for working in 100 years from now.”
True sustainability is a function of the use of the building and the sustainability of that use over time
So yes, there are great techniques used at the Zeitz MOCAA but, says Heatherwick, there is also the sustaining of the grain silo, which had its own character, spirit and soulfulness. “It’s the balance of these factors which is more complex and much harder to judge in hard data terms,” he says. But it is what he aspires to.
Davies agrees with the sentiment that true sustainability is a function of the use of the building and the sustainability of that use over time. “You can have a technically brilliant building, but without a human need for its existence it is ‘useless’ in the full sense of the word”, she says. “What will determine if the building is truly sustainable is whether this new endeavour to create meaning and significance as a cultural platform will be accepted by the people of Cape Town as part of their identity, so that it is retained for the long term.”
It needs to be useful to people for “for another 100 years,” says Davies.
Photo credits: Feature image is by Iwan Baan and the two interior images are by Luca Vincenzo for Gucci x Zeitz MOCAA