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The Sainsbury Centre by Paul Zara

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The AJ Writing Prize 2014: Entry

My older son is now 18 and we have spent the last few months visiting universities to choose where he’d like to study.  For an architect dad this can be a rare treat.  While he suffers the standard talk about how the university has the highest level of student satisfaction and best sports facilities in the country (apparently they all say this), I get to look around the campus and see what’s been happening since my university days in the early 1980s.  

There are some real treats – a few of which I haven’t seen published. I liked the extension to the Bioscience block by Rio Architects at Cardiff. It’s a bold and colourful addition to some rather drab 1970s concrete, the interlocking hexagonal ‘molecule’ glass panels referencing the use of the building.   And at Brighton’s Falmer campus Michael Hopkins Checkland Building is a tour de force.  Classic Hopkins – served and servant elements, clad in terracotta, steel and glass, office floors stepping down the hill to a grassy lawn.  Well detailed and intelligently planned, surely one of the city’s best new buildings for a very long time. 

But it was a re-visit to the University of East Anglia that really raised my spirits.  The sunny day helped - we breezed through the countryside on the train from Liverpool Street. We were early, so a quick stroll around the city and a pizza in The Forum (more Hopkins!) made a good introduction. Then over to the UEA Campus. Lots of Lasdun of course, concrete everywhere with many changes in level, steps and elevated walkways.  Not very accessible, but it looked great in the sunlight and the students were enjoying it as I am sure Lasdun envisaged, sitting on the steps in the main square or lounging on the grass with picnics. It almost felt like they’d been made to do this, the bucolic setting looked so convincing. His stepped student accommodation buildings are a little out of date for current student needs – no en suites! But they are still popular and cheaper to rent than the new blocks, according to our enthusiastic young tour guide.

Then, at the end of the visit, an old favourite - the Sainsbury Centre.  I’ve been there a couple of times over the last few decades, and it has had some work done - a total re-clad at one point.  I loved the way that Foster claimed external panels could be swapped from solid to glazed in minutes – I’m sure they never were, in the same way that they don’t take off the Lloyds Building external services and replace them – nice techy intent, but it was never going to happen. But the entrance, from the upper level glass sided walkway, sneaking you in at an acute angle above the main entrance, remains a sheer delight.  It still takes my breath away…drags me right back to my student days at the Bartlett, roaming around the UK hunting down architectural big game.  It hard for me to find that same level of excitement with new buildings thirty years on, but in this case it’s still there. It remains totally utterly modern, like a vast hanger for a supersonic jet or something from a sci-fi film set.  (It is, apparently, going to make an appearance in ‘Avengers 2: Age of Ultron’ in 2015).

Reyner Banham (born and educated in Norwich) wrote, in his introduction to a small slim volume on Foster Associates published by the RIBA in 1979, that it is  “…the realisation of a Modern Movement dream­ the dream of the infinitely flexible and perfectly conditioned art gallery”. He went on to say that Foster would be judged by this building, as it was one of his most public projects.  Doesn’t seem to have done him any harm!  (Even though the academics who had to work in it claimed to hate it – wonder if they still do?). 

Arriving from the walkway in to this cathedral of high-tech gives the full on experience, to the right the main body of the building, with the artworks spread out below and the library beyond.  The café to the left (‘too expensive’ said student guide) and the wall of glass beyond, looking back to the campus and out across the grass roof of Foster’s later extension, the subterranean Crescent Wing. The white steel structure and delicate louvres give an almost palpable feeling of lightness – the building looks like a few hundred rag week students could pick it up carry it away as a prank.  How many buildings touch the ground so lightly these days? The spiral staircase gently encourages you to look all around as you descend to the main entrance area.

I’m old enough to remember when architecture was polarised – you were either in the Foster/Rogers/Hopkins camp or Po-Mo’d off with Stirling/Graves/Farrell. In these days when anything goes and the young high tech superheroes are now knights and lords of the realm, it’s nostalgic to remember how passionately that battle was fought.  Like most wars these days, perhaps neither side won. 

I’m not the world’s greatest Foster fan, much of his work is too big and corporate for me now, but the Sainsbury Centre is the work of a youngish, fairly unknown architect (he was under 40 when he was designing the building) brimming with enthusiasm and ideas.  Combine this energy with a first class client and the result is a classic of UK architecture.

A little more on the building from Banham,:

“…another hard act to follow. They have set themselves the enviable task of, in future, creating buildings whose performance can satisfy numerate clients, and whose appearance can electrify the rest of us”. 

Not a bad prediction.

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