The Hi-Tech Sainsbury Centre at the University of East Anglia has been given Grade II listed status after a decision by the Heritage Minister Ed Vaizey. The building, which opened in 1977, is considered a masterpiece. Designed by Norman Foster, one of Britain’s most distinguished modern architects, it houses the art collection of Lord and Lady Sainsbury.
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 temporary exhibition space; the entrance Conservatory, with a gallery café; the School of World Art Studies and Museology; a large restaurant; the Robert Sainsbury Library and two mezzanines, used respectively for study areas and for the display of collections including the University of East Anglia Collection of Abstract and Constructivist Art Architecture and Design.
The Sainsbury Centre is one of around a hundred university museums in the UK which are regularly open to the public. Sir Robert (1906 – 2000) and Lady Sainsbury (1912 – ) donated their collection of world art to the University of East Anglia in 1973 and the Sainsbury Centre first opened its doors to visitors in 1978. It was the Sainsburys’ hope that students, academic staff and the general public would grow to appreciate the works on display in much the same way as they themselves had done, by being able to look frequently and closely at them without the distraction of too much museum-style text and labelling.
As a young man, Robert Sainsbury collected private press books and only later began to acquire the objects around which he and his wife built the collection which the University now owns. His first significant purchase was Jacob Epstein’s Baby Asleep, bought in 1931 or 1932. Over the next sixty years, he and Lady Sainsbury added works by both established and, perhaps more interestingly, emerging European artists. With the advice and encouragement of a handful of dealers, the collection also grew to include objects from cultures around the world spanning more than five thousand years. The Sainsburys particularly enjoyed the friendships which they built with individual artists, among them Henry Moore, Alberto Giacometti, Francis Bacon and John Davies, all of whom are well represented in the Collection.
Almost all the works in the Collection are on permanent display. As well as being visited by the public, they are used extensively for teaching by various UEA departments and many local schools and colleges.
By the late 1980s the Collection and the staff had outgrown the original building and the Crescent Wing was added, with new office, exhibition and technical spaces. In 2002, to mark his mother’s ninetieth birthday, Lord David Sainsbury gave her, and thus the University – the splendid promise of a new gallery linking the two parts of the Centre, together with new education and studio spaces. These opened to the public in May 2006, making the Collection even more accessible and, in the true spirit of the original gift, available for all to enjoy.
Ed Vaizey’s decision to list it follows expert advice from English Heritage who cited its architectural innovation, design, historic association, flexibility and group value as reasons for the II* grading. “Norman Foster’s design for the Sainsbury Centre is recognised around the world as a high point of the British ‘high-tech’ movement and, by any standards, a modern classic. As well as standing comparison with any late 20th century building anywhere in the world, it is also superbly fit for purpose, thanks to innovative engineering coming together with very fine design.” Ed Vaizey said:
Roger Bowdler, Designation Director for English Heritage added: “We are pleased that the Sainsbury Centre at the University of East Anglia has been listed at Grade ll* following our recommendation. It is an internationally acclaimed work of late-twentieth century, high-tech architecture, designed by Fosters to house and deftly display the world class Sainsbury collection. The centre sits in the extraordinary context of the University of East Anglia campus, alongside the listed buildings of Denys Lasdun’s 1960s scheme. Listing will not interfere with the centre’s continued flexible use, and the University of East Anglia has set an example over a number of years of how the listed modern buildings in its care can be sympathetically managed.”
Lord Foster commented: “My first meeting with Sir Robert and Lady Sainsbury was around this time of year, almost forty years ago. On the morning of New Year’s Day, 1974 I arrived for what I was told would be a brief meeting about a possible museum project – little did I know the extent to which that meeting would influence my future as an architect and also my personal life.
“A building is only as good as its client and the architecture of the Sainsbury Centre is inseparable from the enlightenment and the driving force of the Sainsburys themselves and the support of the University of East Anglia. I am delighted that the significance of the museum that we created together has been recognised by this listing.”