FOSTER'S PERIOD PIECE HAS BEEN BROUGHT INTO THE 21ST CENTURY
How often does an architect get the chance to revisit and update a project not just once, but twice? This is the second opportunity for Foster and Partners to reconsider its Sainsbury Centre for the Visual Arts (SCVA), with £10 million of improvements marking the 90th birthday of Lady Sainsbury who, with the late Robert Sainsbury, was the building's original benefactor when it opened in 1978 to house their bequest of modern and world art to the University of East Anglia (UEA). Completed one year after the Pompidou Centre, it was an equally radical departure for museum architecture because of its shoebox form, which Foster viewed as 'a sublime shed', and its mixed programme. The building was also home to the UEA Fine Arts Faculty, today the School of World Art Studies and Museology.
In 1991, Foster and Partners added the Crescent Wing, an underground extrusion of the building's rectangular plan with a crescent-shaped skylight facing the lake, housing the study collection, the conservation department, teaching rooms and ofces. Because of their discrete functions, there was no public connection between the two buildings. This separation posed practical problems which have been righted by Foster's latest interventions; not an easy feat given the physical distance between the building's entrances. The temporary exhibition space has also been upgraded to meet the standards required by today's insurers.
In addition to providing an 85m-long gallery linking the two buildings, the architect has taken the opportunity to rethink the building's entrance and provide a café and shop to meet the expectations of today's museum-goers, as well as an education area and an expanded reserve collection. Interior nishes have been renewed, as well as the lighting and services. Thin glass canopies, internally illuminated at night, are cantilevered over the building's two entrances (one for the gallery and one for the school), and two approximately 4 x 6m holes have been cut out of the oor to insert a lift and stair, from where visitors immediately catch a glimpse of the new shop below. As one would expect from Foster, these are subtle moves, yet their summation results in an improved building. This still leaves the question of whether a cavernous rectangular volume 130m long, 35m wide and 7.5m high is the best place to view art, but the latest changes do set the building off to its best advantage. If more buildings were to undergo a 15-year update by their original architects, they would be much better for it.
Escorting the press through the newly refurbished spaces, Foster deputy chairman Spencer de Grey observed that the original building was designed with 'rapidographs on vellum'.
Interestingly, in the intervening 28 years, building technology has not progressed as much as architects' working methods.
Foster partner Chris Connell, a member of the design team for the Crescent Wing and responsible for the current project, describes the changes to the building as 'more of an evolution, than a revolution'.
For this recent phase of work, the gallery was closed for 20 months, and the building interior was stripped back to its tubular-steel structure. The rooflight glazing, the louvres located below the rooflights and, equally important, their motors, as well as the blinds which line the ceiling and walls - 75km worth - have been replaced. The refurbished Sainsbury Centre seems brighter and lighter than the old gallery. Connell explains that, prior to the recent work, the louvres and blinds often remained closed because they were too labour intensive to operate and because, when the operating motors failed, they were not replaced. The university did not have an ongoing maintenance programme equipped to deal with the complexity of the building. Those motors have been replaced by electronic controls so the louvres and blinds are programmed to respond to climatic changes. The building has been divided into zones to enable more precise control. The concept is the same as the original design, but the operation has been fine-tuned. The nylon clips on the old louvres had failed from UV exposure and have been replaced by UV-resistant plastic clips.
The overall effect is a greater play of light throughout the space.
The building's 360 rooflights have been replaced with double-glazed units that control light transmission more precisely than those of a generation ago. A high-performance coating enables 100 per cent filtering of UV light, critical particularly in the temporary exhibitions area where insurance requirements often dictate precise levels for damaging UV light. The double-glazed units also incorporate a protective coating, reducing both solar gain and heat loss. The body-tint in each rooflight varies according to the area below, with a maximum over the temporary exhibition area and none over the school.
The lighting of the gallery has also been completely replaced, though George Sexton, designer of the original system (and still on the project 30 years on, having designed lighting in museums around the world for the likes of Ando and Calatrava), insists the concept is the same - a highly flexible system which can be adapted to changing exhibitions. All adjustment and maintenance is done from high-level walkways in the roof space.
Adaptations have been made to help maintenance and increase energy efficiency, and improvements in technology over time are notable. Today's low-voltage fittings have integrated transformers, a 10th of the weight of the previous ones. Sexton Associates has designed a frame with three gimbal rings, housing bespoke fittings of various types located at each intersection of the blinds and the structure. In the past, four weeks was needed to install lighting for every new exhibition; now a fraction of that is required.
Changing lightbulbs is also easier today because the fittings can be lifted out of the gimbal ring from the gantry and dropped back into place without refocusing; a significant timesaver.
Health-and-safety requirements necessitated improvements to the gantries, provided by a bespoke netting which adapts to the shape of the human body and therefore does not restrict movement while changing bulbs. Another improvement is the provision of a system of fluorescent security and maintenance lighting for use when the gallery is closed and general lighting is required. The fluorescent bulbs have twice the life and use a third of the energy of the tungsten halogen low-voltage lighting used for the artwork.
Sexton Associates is also responsible for updating the gallery's display screens and cases, as well as significantly altering the layout of the permanent exhibition area. The display screens were replaced by a new system which eliminates the previous 1,500mm joint and enables more exible hanging. The display cases were refurbished to achieve an inert environment inside the boxes so that all the materials and the paint eliminate potentially harmful off-gassing. Flexibility was also an important design parameter so that the bases could be easily adaptable to display changes. The display deck is made of high-density polyethylene, similar to that used for chopping boards in commercial kitchens, lined with a thin aluminium tray which is painted with a custom matt-textured paint by Dupont.
More apparent to the visitor is the new axial layout of the permanent exhibition area, which is still called the Living Area to evoke its former incarnation in the Sainsburys' home.
This new arrangement has several advantages over the previous asymmetrical route. It serves as an orientating device and enables a third more art to be displayed. Table display cases for small objects are another new feature. One of the great appeals of the SCVA is the opportunity to get close to the art and see the three dimensional objects in the collection from all angles. The new layout and the increased amount of daylight from the operable louvres and blinds add to that pleasure.
Designed before sustainability was in vogue, the building was green for its day, with no provision for air-conditioning the galleries, following the Sainsburys' desire to replicate the experience of viewing art in their home. Neil Billot, of Buro Happold, explains that the double-wall construction creates a stabilising buffer zone between the exterior and the gallery, minimising damaging temperature swings and, in a way, replicating in lightweight materials the stable environment in traditional museums protected by massive masonry construction. Because the building has one large interior volume, it relies largely on recirculated air so that the need for fresh air, which requires heating and cooling, is minimised.
Nevertheless, occupants of the building had complained of hot and cold spots. Electronic controls, which are easier to programme and have a quicker response time, have replaced the previous pneumatic system. The service plant has also been renewed and, interestingly, requires a larger area as today's more stringent insulation and acoustic requirements call for air-handling units to be bigger.
Fortunately, there was spare capacity in the double-skin service zone that runs the full length of the exterior walls.
An area where technology has changed is in the manufacture of curved glass. Foster's original spiral stair, an unusually whimsical feature of the original design which links the SCVA via a high-level walkway to the Lasdun blocks to the north east, has been seamlessly extended downwards to serve the new basement. Connell explains that Foster wanted the original curved balustrade to be made of glass, but the lack of available technology at the time meant that it was done in polycarbonate. Today, the entire new balustrade is curved glass.
One particularly challenging aspect of the construction was the excavation of the basement, very close to the existing front wall of the building which required underpinning. The use of a traditional piling rig within the existing structure proved difficult because of its size. A grout-injected system, which relies on smaller machinery, was used to inject cementitious grout into the sand and gravel soil which, when cured, hardens into a concrete-like retaining wall. This technology resulted in substantial time savings to the programme as the need for sequential casting and excavating was eliminated. The entire underpinning was completed in approximately two weeks.
The SCVA has capitalised on the building's refurbishment to rebrand itself in order to compete more effectively in the current environment, where museums are outdoing each other to attract an increasingly sophisticated audience. The SCVA's unique advantage is the synergy between school and gallery, put in place by the Sainsburys 28 years ago, and symbolised today by the joint direction of the two institutions by Nichola Johnson, who came to the School of Museology in 1993 and became gallery director five years later. Johnson explains that the new aesthetic involves 'lightening up a little bit' in order to be more 'popular, but not populist'. One aspect of the new look involves a limited introduction of colour, such as cheerful menus on the new cafe tables and an almost-invisible colour-coding of the display case bases. An example of Johnson's lateral thinking is her creative approach to staff development throughout the museum's closure during construction. Job-swaps and secondments were complemented by art outreach workshops in Norwich schools, reaching approximately 2,000 schoolchildren.
The new SCVA is a familiar update of its former self with the big bonus of more art on view. It will be worth watching to see how this is reflected in visitor numbers both from the local area and from further afield. Those who do make the trip will not be disappointed; if the building fails to delight, the art certainly will. The building is fascinating as a period piece which has been sensitively brought into the 21st century.
A discreet explanatory panel has been added at the entrance to the permanent collection, reading: 'It was Sir Robert and Lisa Sainsbury's intention that visitors should enjoy the objects very much as he and Lady Sainsbury had done in their own home.
There are no lengthy text panels or extended labels, neither is there a 'right' way for approaching the collection. Instead, you are invited to explore the [collection] guided by your eye, your curiosity and the power of the objects themselves.'
It is refreshing to wander at will and a revealing reflection of both the museum's layout and visitors' expectations that we need to be told to do so.
The inaugural temporary exhibition, Pacific Encounters: Art & Divinity in Polynesia 1760-1860, is on display until 13 August 2006.