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From royal visits to becoming Avengers HQ: Sainsbury Centre celebrates 40 years of success

PUBLISHED: 10:30 07 April 2018 | UPDATED: 11:07 07 April 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

The Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts in Norwich was opened 40 years ago today. Trevor Heaton explores the life and times of one of the most trail-blazing buildings in Britain.

Lord Sainsbury, Norman Foster and Lady Sainsbury at the Sainsbury Centre. Picture: SCVA archiveLord Sainsbury, Norman Foster and Lady Sainsbury at the Sainsbury Centre. Picture: SCVA archive

It still looks like it has just dropped out of a sci-fi movie. No surprise, then, that when the location-finders for the multi-billion Marvel Comics film franchise were looking for an HQ for the Avengers super-heroes, it fitted the bill perfectly.

And so the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, on the UEA campus in Norwich, has duly appeared in two films already - Avengers: Age of Ultron, and Spider-Man: Homecoming.

Still at the cutting edge, then, and not a bad record for something built in the 1970s. Actually, can you think of any other building from that era that could claim that? Me neither.

Sci-fi walk-ons apart, the building’s ‘day job’, of course, is as the home of the celebrated art collection of Robert and Lisa Sainsbury, built up over the years with an unerring eye for quality, and a long series of high-profile exhibitions. The latest, Superstructures: The New Architecture 1960-1990, has just opened.

Film crews at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts on the University of East Anglia campus setting up for the Avengers: Age of Ultron movie. Picture: www.EnjoyNorwich.comFilm crews at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts on the University of East Anglia campus setting up for the Avengers: Age of Ultron movie. Picture: www.EnjoyNorwich.com

It was Sir Robert and Lady Sainsbury’s 1973 decision to donate their entire 580-strong collection to UEA, with their son David adding £3 million to house it, which provided the spark for what became the Sainsbury Centre.

The then vice-chancellor of the UEA, Dr Frank Thistlethwaite, announcing the gift, described it as ‘the most remarkable of its kind to a university in my lifetime’.

It was an incredible act of generosity from the famous supermarket family, and one which needed an equally remarkable building to be worthy of it.

From a field of 17 possible architects, Norman Foster was chosen in 1974 in what was his first-ever public building. Lord Foster’s other projects have since included such cutting-edge buildings as the world-famous Swiss Re building in London (‘The Gherkin’) and, in our region, the Terminal at Stansted Airport.

The Queen's visit to the Fiji Exhibition at the Sainsbury Centre. Fijian warriors greet the Queen's car as she arrives. Picture: DENISE BRADLEYThe Queen's visit to the Fiji Exhibition at the Sainsbury Centre. Fijian warriors greet the Queen's car as she arrives. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

The Sainsbury Centre was designed to be innovative – it was the first use of superplastic aluminium in the building industry – and also flexible, energy-saving and accessible to all. But above all, to be as beautiful as the artworks it contain. Writing in 1978, the architect recalled how that principle was established from his very first meeting with the Sainsburys. “[They had] an obvious distaste for monuments, a belief that works of art should be enjoyed as a pleasurable aesthetic experience and… there should be the maximum opportunity for contact by scientist and art student alike,” he wrote.

He paid tribute to the Dutch-Indonesian interior and industrial designer Kho Liang le, who began the process of making the design vision a reality but who tragically died in 1975.

The rampant inflation of the 1970s affected the project as in other walks of life, ballooning the final cost to £4.2 million, with David Sainsbury and his sister Annabel later giving extra donations to help meet rising costs. Sir Robert and Lady Sainsbury made a further gift of £4.5 million in 1987.

Firms from the county and wider region were intimately involved with its construction and fitting, including management contractors R G Carter. Its elegant staircases and balustrades, for example, were made by Hubbard Brothers on the Norwich Airport industrial estate, its china and tableware came from Loose’s.

The Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts being built in the late 1970s. Picture: UEA Art History Photographic CollectionThe Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts being built in the late 1970s. Picture: UEA Art History Photographic Collection

At its opening, Dr Thistlethwaite predicted that the new building, would ‘turn out to be one of the most important buildings of the 1970s’. He wasn’t wrong: the accolades soon began to pour in.

Awarding the building the Royal Institute of British Architects’ 1978 Award, its president Gordon Graham hailed it as one of the three most outstanding buildings of the 20th century.

More acclaim followed. It was voted one of the world’s top buildings in a 1984 poll of architects, and was given Grade II* listed status in 2012.

The building always has looked futuristic, and not a little mysterious. One (unfounded) tale has it that the Cold War-era Soviets were so suspicious of the structure and its underground delivery ramp after spotting them on spy satellite that they asked to come and inspect it… on the off-chance it was a missile facility.

As the permanent collections have grown – the Sainsbury collection was later joined by the Anderson Collection of Art Nouveau and UEA’s Abstract and Constructivist Collection – so has the building. The multi-million-pound Crescent Wing extension opened in 1991, giving a 44% increase in ground floor area.

The building has hosted many memorable exhibitions over the years, with some of the most recent including Masterpieces: Art and East Anglia, Francis Bacon and the Masters, Alphonse Mucha: In Quest of Beauty, and the ‘sister exhibitions’ Royal Faberge and Radical Russia.

So much for the building. But what about its people? At its 1978 opening, Gordon Marshall, the first General Administrator, said he wanted to ensure the building would be a ‘lively, busy place’, a beautiful and useful meeting place as well as a showcase for world-class art.

Since then the building has welcomed hundreds of thousands of visitors and students, and for those who work there it is much more than fine architecture and art. Curator Monserrat Pis Marcos is an example of that. She was drawn to work at the building in 2016 because of its collections, and her love for it has grown ever since. “I adore the view, inside and out, of the massive glass windows of the Modern Life Café,” she said. “I love feeling that I am contributing to the care, study and preservation of a legacy that hopefully will exist long after I am gone myself.

“Working on exhibitions that open new worlds to visitors, learning about objects that question my understanding and my perception of everyday life, having the honour –and the responsibility – to look after a heritage that our forebears left behind is, to me, one of the most rewarding and beautiful experiences that one can be entrusted with.”

The connections – before and after the centre was built – go back much further for Debbie Longordo, events and hospitality officer. “I’ve worked here for 20 years as a casual, part-time and full-time member of the team. My favourite bits of the building are at opposite ends – the light-filled Modern Life Café, and the Crescent Wing extension where most of our offices are,” she said.

“I remember the bluebell fields that were here before the Centre was built. I can still picture a carpet of blue that has stayed with me for 56 years (I was five at the time). Every May you can still see bluebells in the wooded area around the nearby broad.”

And let’s not forget the people. “I treasure the friends I have made and the great work colleagues I share my workings day with. A building is just a building, no matter how iconic, and I believe it’s the people inside that ‘make the building’.”

Debbie’s other highlights over the years include marvelling at enormous collages commemorating Princess Diana, that Avengers filming, the Queen’s visit in January 2017, and the recent Royal Fabergé exhibition.

The last word comes from the Centre’s director, Professor Paul Greenhalgh. “Having been at the Sainsbury Centre now for over seven years I have to say that every single day I walk into the building, I still get a euphoric and emotional lift,” he said.

“It is a real joy to work inside a masterpiece, alongside hundreds of masterpieces. The main gallery, called the Living Area, is my favourite part of the building, though the wonderful corridor in the Crescent Wing, where our offices are, is an architectural poem in its own right.

“Our commitment at the Centre is to preserve and promote the original vision of Robert and

Lisa Sainsbury. Their desire to give the public the highest possible experience of art remains our mission.’

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