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How a Norwich building became a milestone as 'high-tech' conquered the world

PUBLISHED: 11:48 22 March 2018 | UPDATED: 12:06 22 March 2018

Still at the cutting edge: the Sainsbury Centre. Picture: Andy Crouch

Still at the cutting edge: the Sainsbury Centre. Picture: Andy Crouch

©Andy Crouch 2017

Opened 40 years ago, Norman Foster's Sainsbury Centre remains a milestone of the 'high-tech' modern archtitecture movement. Now a new exhibition examines how this largely British style would go on to re-build the world.

Crescent Wing at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts. Photo: Foster and Partners/Richard DaviesCrescent Wing at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts. Photo: Foster and Partners/Richard Davies

Forty years ago the opening ribbon was cut on Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, a gleaming vision of the future whose architect and his contemporaries would go on to shape the world.

Constructed between 1975 and 1978, it was first public building designed by the now world-renowned architect Sir Norman Foster, though one of a handful of buildings he had designed before it was also in this region, the Willis Faber and Dumas headquarters in Ipswich.

Sir Robert and Lady Sainsbury with Lord Norman Foster. Photo: SubmittedSir Robert and Lady Sainsbury with Lord Norman Foster. Photo: Submitted

Built on a sloping east-west site by the River Yare, at the very edge of the UEA campus, it was built as a public art museum to house the collection of Lord and Lady Sainsbury.

The building has gone on to be recognized as an early high point of the British ‘high-tech’ architectural movement that began in the 1970s and continues today.

Construction of Sainsbury Centre 1975-78. Photo: Art History Photographic Collection, UEA/Michael BrandonConstruction of Sainsbury Centre 1975-78. Photo: Art History Photographic Collection, UEA/Michael Brandon

Inspired by the start of the technological and computing revoltions in the 1960s and 70s, the steel, glass and tensile structures associated with the ‘high-tech’ label are now ubiquitous, found on office blocks, shopping centres and company headquarters the world over.

Largely led by young British architects, of which Foster was and is its most successful practitioner, it quickly spread, examples ranging from London’s Gherkin to the Pompidou Centre in Paris to Foster’s recent Apple Park in Silicon Valley.

Richard Rogers and Ivan Harbour with Prouve House Model. Photo: Rogers Stirk Harbour and PartnersRichard Rogers and Ivan Harbour with Prouve House Model. Photo: Rogers Stirk Harbour and Partners

A cutting a futuristic aircraft hanger-like shape a sloping east-west site by the River Yare, at the very edge of UEA campus, with its exposed steel framework, expanse of glass and flexible use of space, the Sainsbury Centre remains one of the hallmarks of the movement.

The gallery is celebrating its 40th year with a new exhibition looking back at its design and creation, as well as that of other landmark projects associated with ‘high-tech’ architecture.

Technicians put on the perspex surround on the model of the HSBC and Shanghai Bank headquarters building in Hong Kong, at the setting up of the exhibition, SuperStructures: The New Architecture 1960 - 1990 at the Sainsbury Centre. Picture: DENISE BRADLEYTechnicians put on the perspex surround on the model of the HSBC and Shanghai Bank headquarters building in Hong Kong, at the setting up of the exhibition, SuperStructures: The New Architecture 1960 - 1990 at the Sainsbury Centre. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

Superstructures: The New Architecture 1960-90, which opens this weekend, tells the story of the movement’s fascination with technology in the post-war decades, and how it developed new architectural forms utilising lightweight structures, industrialised building techniques and innovative engineering.

The Sainsbury Centre epitomises this new technological spirit: a ‘well-serviced shed’ with a lightweight and extendable steel structure wrapped in a ‘skin’ of glass and plastic clip-on panels, it has been adapted as the building’s functions have changed over time.

ZipUp House. Photo: Rogers Stirk Harbour and Partners/Eamonn O'MahonyZipUp House. Photo: Rogers Stirk Harbour and Partners/Eamonn O'Mahony

The exhibition not only shows how the Sainsbury Centre was made, but also explores how earlier feats of engineering such as the Crystal Palace inspired buildings of its kind.

The exhibition, which also explores the work of those figures who influenced the protagonists of high-tech, including Buckminster Fuller, Jean Prouvé, Charles and Ray Eames and Cedric Price.

Model for Centre Pompidou in Paris. Photo: Rogers Stirk Harbour and PartnersModel for Centre Pompidou in Paris. Photo: Rogers Stirk Harbour and Partners

On display for the first time is a brand new 3m-long model of the Sainsbury Centre. Rarely seen together, a selection of models of other iconic ‘high-tech’ projects will also be on show, including the Pompidou Centre by Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano; International Terminal Waterloo by Nicholas Grimshaw and the Hopkins House by Michael and Patty Hopkins.

Examples of ‘technology transfer’ show how techniques were adapted from the automotive, nautical, aerospace and information industries to create bold new materials and innovative industrial processes.

Architectural model of the International Terminal Waterloo. Photo: GrimshawArchitectural model of the International Terminal Waterloo. Photo: Grimshaw

The exhibition includes a range of fascinating objects from drawings and paintings, models, furniture and product design to photographs and film, and consists of national and international loans, as well as items from the Sainsbury Centre’s own collection.

Though these buildings are often referred to as ‘high-tech’, the exhibition points out how this label is regarded unfavourably by some as misleading in its suggestion of a singular ‘style’.

Exhibition technicians, Alex Crocker, left, and James Quinn, unwrap a canvas called Inmos Central Spine by Ben Johnson during the setting up of the exhibition, SuperStructures: The New Architecture 1960 - 1990 at the Sainsbury Centre. Picture: DENISE BRADLEYExhibition technicians, Alex Crocker, left, and James Quinn, unwrap a canvas called Inmos Central Spine by Ben Johnson during the setting up of the exhibition, SuperStructures: The New Architecture 1960 - 1990 at the Sainsbury Centre. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

However immersed in the utopian and experimental ideas of late modernism, they shared a commonality of ideas, forms and materials.

The Sainbury Centre was listed in 2012, beign described as “a high point of the British ‘high-tech’ movement and, by any standards, a modern classic.”

Model of the Prouve House. Photo: Rogers Stirk Harbour and PartnersModel of the Prouve House. Photo: Rogers Stirk Harbour and Partners

At the time Foster stated: “My first meeting with Sir Robert and Lady Sainsbury was almost 40 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.”

• Superstructures: The New Architecture 1960-90 is at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts in Norwich from March 24 to September 2, £12 (£10.50 cons), scva.ac.uk

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