The finest Foster building to date? Some, including Foster insiders, think so.We revisit the Sainsbury Centre at the University of East Anglia 25 years on
Robert Sainsbury had some good advice for would-be art collectors. 'Don't buy if you can't afford to buy, ' he counselled, 'and don't take any notice of what other people tell you.'
Sainsbury (1906-2000 - knighted in 1967 for his services to art) had few worries when it came to financing his art purchases. As a major shareholder in the grocery - later supermarket - chain that his grandfather had founded in the 1860s, he was a very wealthy man. But Sainsbury and his wife Lisa had taste as well as money. He bought the splendid Mother and Child by Henry Moore, for example, in 1933 for £160 - his second purchase from the young sculptor. The Sainsburys were early patrons of Francis Bacon and Alberto Giacometti and pioneers in the appreciation of Oriental and ethnic art.
In 1973, a few years after Sainsbury's retirement as chairman of the supermarket chain, the Sainsburys gave the bulk of their art collection (more than 600 artefacts) to the University of East Anglia (UEA). One of the new universities was chosen as the recipient of this extraordinary benefaction because the donors, who were friends of the first vice-chancellor, Frank Thistlethwaite, wanted to stimulate fresh thinking about the interaction between research, teaching and the display of works of art.
Housing the UEA's School of Fine Art - its teaching, social and library spaces - under the same roof as the gallery reflected the Sainsburys' belief that art should be integrated into everyday life. (At one point, it seems, separate gallery and teaching buildings had been considered. ) The building was to be primarily for the use of the UEA community - public access was initially to be limited. This was the genesis of Norman Foster's Sainsbury Centre, opened on 12 April 1978, and celebrating its 25th anniversary this year.
Foster has spoken eloquently of the architect-client relationship that made the Sainsbury Centre the enduring masterpiece it undoubtedly is. 'A building is only as good as its client, ' Foster declared, 'and the architecture of the Sainsbury Centre is inseparable from the enlightenment and the driving force of the patrons behind it.' Foster, then in his early 40s, was chosen after Sainsbury and his son David toured Britain looking at recent buildings in search of an architect for the proposed centre. After seeing Foster's Fred Olsen amenity building in London's Docklands, completed in 1970, the Sainsburys contacted Foster and early in 1974 commissioned him to design the centre. The cost has never been disclosed but was reported to be about £3.7 million - £600,000 of public money paid for the academic and social spaces. Foster's conviction that what was required was an enjoyable building, 'a nice place to be', rather than a monument, accorded with the Sainsburys' thinking. One of the happiest collaborations of Foster's career was launched.
Clients and architect shared the vision of 'a gallery without walls'. After the tragically premature death of Kho Lang Le, a Dutch/Indonesian architect to whom the Sainsburys initially wanted to entrust the interior of the building, Foster Associates, as it then was, took responsibility for the entire project, with Anthony Hunt Associates, a collaborator from Team 4 days, as structural engineer. The context of the building was the greenfield site a few miles from the centre of Norwich where Denys Lasdun's teaching wall and residential ziggurats formed the most memorable of the new campuses of the 1960s.
(These were built between 1964 and 1974. ) The exact location of the centre was the subject of protracted debate, though Feilden (who had succeeded Lasdun as the UEA's consultant architect and masterplanner in 1969) was apparently not consulted on the matter. A site next to the Music Centre, designed by Philip Dowson and completed in 1974, was firmly rejected by client and architect. That eventually chosen, set apart at the western end of the Lasdun sequence (the basic geometry of which the new building respected) and overlooking a newly created lake, was right not only in visual terms but equally because it was not part of a cultural 'ghetto'. Its splendid isolation has been somewhat compromised by Rick Mather's extensions of the 1980s and '90s at the western end of the campus.
Working with a team that included Loren Butt, Roy Fleetwood (later to lead the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank project), Birkin Haward, Richard Horden, Ian Ritchie and the young David Nelson (now his partner), Foster conceived the centre as a sublime shed, 130m long, with a 35m-span roof formed of welded steel tube providing a clear internal height of 7.5m. A post-andbeam structure was considered, but using an integrated truss structure, a development of the solid portal frame Foster employed at Reliance Controls in Team 4 days, had clear advantages. The 37 trusses were made in the Midlands, arriving on site ready painted and requiring only final welding.
The development of a double skin, with accommodation for WCs, kitchens and services along the edge of the building within the 2.4m thickness of the frame, tidied up the interior of the centre while keeping the exterior sleek and totally free of the accretion of services that characterised Piano and Rogers' Pompidou Centre (completed a year before the Sainsbury Centre). The roof void incorporated catwalks for accessing lighting and other services and fans to assist the natural ventilation system on warm days. Air conditioning was ruled out, with the result that the building can be less than cool on the hottest summer days. (Foster pointed out that the artworks had been kept in ordinary houses for many years, why should they need to be placed in a refrigerator? ) A highly significant feature of the roof, prescient of Stansted, Chek Lap Kok airport and other subsequent projects, was the way natural light was controlled and filtered by a layer of moveable louvres to provide the calm luminosity which has long been a hallmark of Foster's work. The building's cladding, later to be the cause of some grief, was developed by Foster collaborator Tony Prichard, an industrial and product designer who had worked on the Willis Faber headquarters. This was a building without traditional roof and walls: the same system would enclose both. Foster was aware that the roof, the 'fifth elevation', would be clearly visible from the upper floors of the Lasdun blocks. A system of 1.8m x 1.2m sandwich panels - a thin layer of anodised aluminium backed with a thick layer of highly insulative phenolic foam and sealed with a neoprene gasket lattice - was developed.
The effect of the ribbed cladding was highly distinctive, reminiscent of the Airstream trailers and Greyhound buses beloved of High-Tech designers, though Prichard's inspiration was the old-style Citroën van. For David Jenkins, the replacement in 1988 of this original cladding (which had become porous due to interaction between the materials used in the panels) by smooth white panels was a turning point: 'In its new livery the building seems to have quietly slipped into graceful middle age.' (AJ 8.5.91). For Foster's partner Graham Phillips, however, who regards the centre as probably the practice's finest building to date, 'the new cladding has removed the period charm from the building, perhaps, but it now looks timeless, a classic. But more Boeing than Citroën'.
Phillips, though not part of the team that designed the centre, headed that which built the Crescent Wing, opened in 1991. Thanks in no small part to the continuing munificence of the Sainsburys, the collection had grown (it now includes more than 1,300 objects), while the research and teaching activities of the centre had expanded.
Extending the shed might appear a natural enough process if it was seen as a potentially infinite extrusion.When this possibility was raised with the Sainsburys, who judged the building as much a masterpiece as any object it housed, they were adamant that it should not be touched. Since they were also the donors of the extension, there was little point in disputing their judgement.
The scope for an underground extension was, in any case, clear. The original centre sits on an undercroft - it is a lightweight structure on a solid base like the unbuilt Frankfurt athletics stadium and the Stansted airport terminal. The undercroft at UEA uses the natural contours of the site. It can be accessed by vehicles via a ramp, leading to a loading bay, at the west end of the building, thus providing a secure area for moving works of art.
Storage and workshop areas are arranged along a narrow spine extending the full length of the centre. The Crescent Wing is connected to this undercroft at the east end of the building and contains additional workshops, conservation laboratories, offices, a lower gallery-cum-lecture room, and - an important innovation - a gallery where the reserve collection can be both securely stored and made accessible to researchers and other visitors. Again following the natural contours, the Crescent Wing curves to address the lake, forming a great arc of glazing on which the original building sits.
This glazing is the only external evidence of the existence of this subterranean world (with 70 per cent of the footprint of the original building), apart from the rooflights in the grass above and the narrow access ramp.
Ingenious (and practically useful) as it is, the Crescent Wing, with its carefully contrived plan and traditional masonry construction, obviously lacks the rigorous logic and sheer visual drama of Foster's original shed. It is also recognised that its lack of connection to the rest of the centre is a problem. Visitors have to exit the latter and enter the Crescent Wing via the ramp. This issue is to be addressed by Foster as part of a new programme of works that will include a new linear gallery at basement level and a direct connection from the main reception area to the Crescent Wing - ideas of a canopy marking the entrance have been abandoned.
Peter Cook felt that the original idea of combining gallery and teaching facility, plus canteens and common rooms, in one space was 'a bold piece of programming or more likely the product of Foster's well-known soft shoe hustle': it might not have worked.
Indeed, there were academics, notably the late professor Andrew Martindale, sometime head of fine art at UEA, who disliked the arrangement from the start. Though 25 years on there seem to be few gripes. Today the centre seems to be well-loved and heavily used. Changes have been made, always with Foster's approval it seems, but they have not compromised the integrity of the place.
The view from the walkway that slices into the shed at high level, connecting it to the raised deck of the Lasdun terraces, is sublime. Aesthetics, it was claimed, were not an issue in the design of the building: its enormous elegance was fortuitous. Or was it?
The debate over the positioning of the centre showed that architect and client had definite ideas about its relationship to the landscape, while Charles Jencks was quick to point out the temple-like characteristics of its form, with 'porticoes' at either end. (Foster was to pursue that analogy more literally in the Carre d'Art at Nimes. ) As a place to display art the centre is still hugely enjoyable; the randomness and browsing it encourages may displease the puritans but it is surely preferable to a route march through an enfilade of rooms. It is an encouragement to view art in a comparative way, something the founders, with their interest in so many cultures, wanted to foster.
'Sensual enjoyment is no bar to the pursuit of knowledge or intellectual understanding, ' Sainsbury insisted. He wanted 'a place in which people could relax, look at works of art in a leisurely manner if they so wished, read a novel or just dream away'. This was what Foster created and his creation has worn well.
The original display screens and plinths are still in use and the same carpet (replaced to the same pattern where it has worn out) is still on the floor. The lighting strategy devised by consultant George Sexton is as effective as ever. Even the 16 potted trees in the cafe area remain in place.
Above all, the centre still seems a radical venture. Indeed, after a quarter of a century which has seen the new Getty, the Bilbao Guggenheim, the transformed Louvre and, yes, the National Gallery Sainsbury Wing all presenting conflicting strategies on the display of artworks, the Sainsbury Centre remains unique for its integration of building and collection. Oxford has its Ashmolean, Cambridge its Fitzwilliam, London its Courtauld, but the UEA has the Sainsbury, and for that alone an assured place on the global cultural map.
The very first design drawings, which were never published, were for a linear building which stepped down progressively towards the lake. This idea was soon abandoned and the 'big shed' idea came into being. The structure of this big shed was basically a very large-scale two-pin portal frame spanning 35m, with the alternatives of either external or internal cladding. Detailed budget prices were obtained for these schemes, which were almost ready for final design and detailing.
Meetings were always held on Thursdays and ran all day, with an excellent informal inhouse lunch. On a Thursday I will never forget, Foster started the meeting by saying that he was unhappy with the somewhat brutal portal scheme. So this was back to square one - my office was rather unhappy.
I said to Foster, 'well if you're not happy we had better start again'.
We then proceeded to explore a solution using the Canadian Triodetic system. By this time we were up against a tight design programme and using the Triodetic system would have involved trips to Canada since all the expertise was there. So we developed what you see now.
The main structure is simple: a series of identical prismatic lattice trusses bearing on prismatic columns which cantilever from their bases. The structural principles are straightforward but the relationship between structure and cladding required closer tolerances than had ever been achieved previously for building structures, and there was a real problem at the curved eaves at the junction of the top boom of the truss with the external leg of the column.
At a meeting in Foster's country house, the team drew out the whole eaves junction full size on huge pieces of paper laid on the floor, and it became evident that if we set the main truss support off the main vertical column axis this would solve the problem. This resulted in an eccentric loading condition which, because of its complexity, we tested as a full-size mock-up to prove its capacity.
The project as a whole went very smoothly and I think that, although the structure is not the lightest we have ever designed, it has an elegance of form that is still appreciated today.
The building is a dramatic and seminal work 25 years on and is one of my all-time favourites. I look back on my involvement with great pleasure and satisfaction, working with a marvellous team.
CLIENT The University of East Anglia
ARCHITECT Foster Associates: Arthur Branthwaite, Loren Butt, John Calvert, Chubby Chhabra, Ian Dowsett, Howard Filbey, Mike Elkan, Roy Fleetwood, Norman Foster, Wendy Foster, Birkin Haward, Neil Holt, Richard Horden, Caroline Lwin, David Nelson, Tomm Nyhuus, Ian Ritchie, Judith Warren, Chris Windsor, John Yates, Bodo Zapp
STRUCTURAL ENGINEER Anthony Hunt Associates
M&E ENGINEER Foster Associates
QUANTITY SURVEYOR Hanscomb Partnership
ACOUSTICS Sound Research Laboratories
LIGHTING Claude R Engle
LANDSCAPING Lanning Roper
CLADDING CONSULTANT Tony Pritchard
MAIN CONTRACTOR RG Carter and Bovis Construction
SUBCONTRACTORS AND SUPPLIERS Drainage John Taylor and Sons; steelwork Tubeworkers; aluminium claddingModern Art Glass; infill panels Artech Plastics Engineering; glass gable wall James Clark & Eaton
CREDITS - RECLADDING 1988
ARCHITECT Foster and Partners: Norman Foster, Graham Phillips
CLADDING CONTRACTOR Cupples Products