Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts

The Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts is an art gallery and museum located on the campus of the University of East Anglia, Norwich in the United Kingdom. It is housed in one of the first major public buildings to be designed by Norman Foster.

Designed between 1974 and 1976 and opened in 1978, the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts was Norman Foster’s first major public building. He was approached by Sir Robert and Lady Sainsbury to design an appropriate building to house both the collection which they had gifted to the University in 1973 and the School of Fine Art (now the School of World Art Studies and Museology). Located on a sloping east-west site close to the River Yare at the extreme edge of the campus, the 1978 building consists of the Living Area, which houses the permanent display of the Robert and Lisa Sainsbury Collection; a collection consisting of many human and animal themed sculptural forms from around the world.
Also it contains a temporary exhibition space; the entrance Conservatory, with a gallery café; the School of World Art Studies and Museology ; a large public restaurant; the Robert Sainsbury Library and two mezzanines, used respectively for study areas and for the display of the University of East Anglia Collection of Abstract and Constructivist Art, Architecture and Design.

The accommodation of so many different functions under a single roof called for a highly innovative approach and the resulting building remains revolutionary in the history of museum design. It is essentially a prefabricated modular structure, with individual factory-made parts being assembled on site. The impression is of one vast open space, without the internal divisions normally found in museums, and it is remarkable for its transparency and for the interplay of natural and artificial light with it.
Spaces between the external cladding and the internal shutters accommodate plant and service functions and an underground corridor running along the spine of the building gives access to storage and workshop areas. It was Foster’s intention that the building be constructed in such a way as to allow for subsequent extension if necessary.

Close attention was paid to every detail of the building’s fitting out and furnishing and to the way in which the objects were displayed within it, and the 1978 building still looks very much as it did when it opened.  The front enclosing glass panels are huge (I estimate at least 76 x 240) and must have been one of the first buildings of its kind to have a such large monolithic glass facade.  Norman Foster's designs definitely push the glass envelope to the limit, and this must have been quite a challenge for the installation contractor.  I know from personal experience how difficult it can be to crane and manipulate glass of this size around, and it can actually break under its own weight if not handled with extreme precision and care.  It had to have been done from the inside and without the roof on.

By the late 1980s, however, the expansion of both activities and collections (which by now included not only the Robert and Lisa Sainsbury Collection and University Collections but also the Anderson Collection of Art Nouveau) led to plans for further building. Instead of extending the 1978 building as originally planned, however, Foster proposed a new partially-underground Crescent Wing to the east. This was opened in 1991 and offered new office and temporary exhibition areas, an open storage area for the reserve collections, technical workshops and a state-of-the-art conservation laboratory.
A futher extension has now been completed, which links the 1978 and 1991 buildings internally and provides an accessible lift, additional gallery and circulation spaces, an education and studio area and a new shop.  I thought that the lift was a remarkable glass design. While it may seem simple, it must have built with extraordinary precision and the design completely obscures the structural support needed to hold these large panels in place.  Brilliant. 

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