Rough Luxe: Inside The Silo Hotel

Mark Williams

An exclusive first look at Cape Town's latest architectural feat.

As you step out of the raw-concrete core of The Silo and onto the hotel’s rooftop bar, it’s the light that hits you first. This is dreamy ocean sunlight, refracted through soft, white clouds under an intense sky that can only be African. Then you feel the presence of the overwhelming view of the sea, with the impressive backdrop of Table Mountain’s gray sandstone crags and the exhilarating sense of space that comes with it. It’s as much a physical as an optical experience.

You are just 213 feet up, but when it was completed in 1924 this was the tallest building in South Africa—in the heart of Cape Town’s waterfront. It still feels as though it’s at the center of Cape Town, in an area where the city’s various incarnations have each left their mark: Dutch trading post, British colony, gateway for Nelson Mandela’s Rainbow Nation, and now putative cultural capital for a new Africa.

There is a pool and a sundeck up here, as well as service delivered with unusual and authentic warmth, wine from Olifants River and Robertson and Stellenbosch and Hemel-en-Aarde and a score of other distinguished centers of South African grape growing and winemaking. But that, and lunch from the barbecue, is for later. For the moment, taking stock of the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront that is all around you is the priority.

There are an astonishing number and variety of streets, squares, hospitals, schools, and even a waterfall that still carry Queen Victoria’s name in Africa (Cape Town’s Queen Victoria Street and the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront are just two of the most conspicuous examples in this city), yet the monarch never actually set foot on the continent. Her second son, Alfred, however, did pass through the city twice—the first time in 1860 as a 16-year-old midshipman and then again seven years later as the captain of his own ship, HMS Galatea. Alfred gave his name to the first Cape Town basin. When the city outgrew it, a second was dug and christened for his mother.

The V&A is still a working harbor where trawlers tie up in neat lines, followed to their berths by the seals and gulls that flock here. On the dry dock, a short, stubby coaster from South Korea is set up on blocks while teams of workers patch up its salt-scarred hulls. A little farther out to sea, lines of container ships can be spotted, on their way to deliver the goods that Africa’s largest economy imports.

The balance between toil and leisure is shifting. Just as it has for waterfronts from Ghirardelli Square in San Francisco to Shad Thames in London, the postindustrial economy here has altered the role of Cape Town’s old wharves and warehouses. The V&A waterfront has its restaurants and shops, and its office buildings. But Cape Town has learned from some of the mistakes of its urban predecessors and retained a sense of itself. This is still a very special site, one that is like no other, and one that carries with it some of the essential moments in the history of South Africa. It’s here that visitors start the pilgrimage to Robben Island: once a leper hospital, then a military installation, and then for three decades a prison that held many of the leaders of the African National Congress. It’s from the Union Castle Building here that the weekly mail ships to London sailed until as recently as 1977.


Mark Williams

And it’s here that a monumental cluster of concrete silos, which for almost 75 years facilitated the prosperity of South African farmers and enabled their exports to Europe, underwent an extraordinary architectural transformation by London-based designer Thomas Heatherwick to become the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa (to be known as the Zeitz MOCAA), due to open in September. The new institution’s ambition is to have a positive impact on not just the culture of Cape Town or South Africa but the entire continent. Its mission is to exhibit the most challenging and powerful new work in Africa.

The Silo hotel opened in March, tucked away on the upper levels of the taller of the two structures that made up the grain silos.

The idea of turning raw industrial space into luxury hotels has been a standard part of the repertoire of urban renewal. But this is different. It’s the touch of Liz Biden, founder of South Africa–based hotel group the Royal Portfolio. The space is personal, intimate, and geared to how she understands her guests rather than to any preconceptions about design hotels. So there are crystal chandeliers in the rooms rather than retro hipster lightbulbs. There is no furniture by any recognizable designers but rather a collection of one-offs and finds. This is not a paraphrasing of international precedents. And its relationship with Heatherwick’s work on the shell and the gallery next door might best be described as peaceful coexistence. “I like to go shopping and to find things,” Biden says. “We have filled Silo with art from a very young and talented generation of African artists.”

Biden started her hotel business in 1999, when she converted the Royal Malewane, once her family’s holiday home in Kruger National Park, near the Mozambique border, into a game lodge. Since then there have been two other hotels, closer to Cape Town. La Residence, at Franschhoek in wine country, an hour’s drive inland from The Silo, and Birkenhead House, 76 miles southeast of the city, on the cliffs in Hermanus, a place to go whale watching from the beach. This is her first city hotel, and she has poured her heart and soul into it. “We have come full circle with The Silo,” she says.

Heatherwick has become an internationally recognized designer in the past few years. He was commissioned to work on Google’s new headquarters in Silicon Valley, and last September New York City’s mayor, Bill de Blasio, attended the unveiling of renderings for one of Heatherwick’s two big Manhattan projects: Vessel, an intricate Escher-like cascade of staircases for Hudson Yards, the largest urban development the city’s seen since Rockefeller Center was built in the 1930s. The other, the $200 million Pier 55, a floating island park funded by Barry Diller and Diane von Furstenberg, is currently enmeshed in legal drama.

But Heatherwick’s involvement with Cape Town goes back to long before he became famous. Ravi Naidoo, the charismatic founder of Design Indaba, the inspirational design festival that has welcomed a bevy of luminaries, including Archbishop Desmond Tutu, took him to see it in 2006 and again in 2011.

Turning the redundant silo into a museum was not the most obvious of propositions. The grain silo had two main parts: the elevator building, which now houses the hotel in its top eight levels, and the storage building, a cluster of 42 huge concrete tubes resembling gigantic organ pipes, each of which could hold 500 tons of grain.


Mark Williams

Grain arrived in railway wagons from South Africa’s far-off farmland 1,000 miles to the north, was unloaded into underground bunkers, and then hoisted up on conveyor belts to be weighed, sorted, and graded, before being moved into the storage silos to await the next shipment, or for a rise in price.

Heatherwick was fascinated by this giant structure, with its ancient mechanical equipment still sitting outside, with its cast-iron makers’ names serving as reminders of long-vanished factories in England.

It was not until the developer who controlled the whole 23 acres started to take a close interest in this part of the site that the idea of some form of cultural space with an attached but entirely discrete hotel became a real possibility. The hotel’s revenue would help the building’s investors turn a profit. Heatherwick was asked to put forward a scheme to show how the buildings could be brought back to life.

Jochen Zeitz, a German businessman (former CEO of Puma, one-time board member of luxury powerhouse Kering) who is a serious collector of African art (he has a lodge, Segera Retreat, on Laikipia Plateau, in Kenya), was persuaded to make his collection the basis of the museum. South African curator Mark Coetzee, who worked for the Rubell Family Collection in Miami and then Puma before relocating to Cape Town, came aboard as director to negotiate the design needs of displaying art. He worked to secure at least a few neutral spaces alongside Heatherwick’s plans to hollow out the middle of the structure to create an atrium that has some of the spatial characteristics of a Gaudí cathedral.


Mark Williams

From the outside, the only sign that this building has undergone anything more than a careful spring-cleaning is the windows that Heatherwick has introduced on the top level of the silos and on six hotel floors in the adjacent elevator building. He calls the windows pillows, though they look like distant cousins of Buckminster Fuller geodesic domes. They allow sunlight to flood into the rooms and offer extraordinary views, especially in the corner bedrooms, where you can see both Table Mountain and the ocean. “This was always going to be a project more about ‘innie’ than ‘outie,’” Heatherwick says.

The hotel’s street-level entrance opens into a lobby embellished with vivid art. Reception is up on the sixth floor, which looks out over a plaza formed by the glass roof of the adjacent museum. You can already get a sneak preview of the dramatic interior, looking down into the tops of the silos. And it’s here where Heatherwick led a team of craftsmen to hack out a complex space that soars up the full height of the museum. “We took a single grain of corn, scanned it digitally, blew it up to be ten floors high, rotated it, and used that as the template,” says Heatherwick, a born storyteller. “Of all the billions of grains of corn and wheat that went through this building, we have taken one and made it famous.”

On this floor there is a bar, named for the SS Willaston, the vessel that took the first shipment of corn from the silo in 1924, and a restaurant. In the opening weeks both overflowed with locals, with drinks and lunch served on the top floor. Between the two are the 28 rooms, which range from the enormous penthouse to the simply substantial.

It’s a great place from which to start a trip across South Africa, to enjoy a relaxing break, and—very soon—to see one of the world’s most-anticipated museums at close quarters.

Rooms from $964; theroyalportfolio.com.