About / The Building

The Building

Designed between 1974 and 1976, the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts was the first major public building designed by now renowned architect Norman Foster. 

The chosen location was a sloping east-west site by the River Yare, at the very edge of campus.

A revolution of modern design

With the need to house many functions under one roof, Foster’s solution was highly innovative. The building is a prefabricated modular structure formed around a steel framework, with individual aluminium or glass panels assembled on site. 

Spaces between the external cladding and internal shutters house plant and service functions. An underground corridor runs along the building’s spine, to access to storage and workshop areas.

The original building

When the Sainsbury Centre first opened in 1978, it housed the Living Area, displaying the Robert and Lisa Sainsbury Collection and a temporary exhibition gallery at the east end.

Beyond the Living Area was space for the University’s Art History department, two mezzanines - one for a study area and the other to display collections - plus a restaurant at the west end.

Interior and exterior

The interior was fitted out with close attention to detail, including how objects were displayed within the space.

Inside feels like one vast open space, without divisions typically found in museums. The space is remarkable for its transparency and interplay of natural and artificial light. 

Vistas from the great end windows were also a key part of the original aesthetic. So landscape architect Lanning Roper was commissioned, adding a lake and groupings of lime trees outside.

The Crescent Wing

Foster’s structure intentionally allowed for future extension. Indeed, by the late 1980s, the centre had outgrown the original building. Yet instead of extension, Foster proposed a new partially underground Crescent Wing to the east.

This opened in 1991, offering new office and temporary exhibition areas, a storage area, technical workshops and a state-of-the-art conservation laboratory.

Unlike the lightweight metal and glass structure above, the inner core was built largely with concrete and plaster. Only the crescent façade is fronted by a glazed corridor overlooking the Yare.

The last decade

A further extension, commissioned to mark Lady Sainsbury’s 90th birthday, opened in May 2006. This linked the 1978 and 1991 buildings internally, providing a lift, additional gallery spaces, education studio and larger shop.

The most recent refurbishment in 2013-14, funded by the University and the Gatsby Trust, has made even better use of the spaces and facilities and improved climate control.

There’s a new Foster-designed circular shop in the original building, and new East end galleries devoted to the Sainsbury Reserve and study collections with space for loans and special exhibits.

The new suite of air-conditioned lower galleries means the Sainsbury Centre now boasts the largest temporary exhibition spaces in the Eastern England.