Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts

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Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts

With the donation in 1973 of their collection of ethnographic and twentieth-century art to the University of East Anglia, together with an endowment for a new building, Sir Robert and Lady Sainsbury sought to establish the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts as an academic and social focus within the university campus. The Sainsburys shared a belief that the study of art should be an open, pleasurable experience, one not bound by the traditional enclosure of object and viewer. As a result the Sainsbury Centre is much more than a conventional gallery, where the emphasis is on art in isolation. Instead, it integrates a number of related activities within a single, light-filled space.

The building itself brought a new level of refinement to the practice’s early explorations into lightweight, flexible structures. Structural and service elements are contained within the double-layer walls and roof. Within this shell is a free-flowing sequence of spaces that incorporates a conservatory reception area, coffee bar, exhibition areas, the Faculty of Fine Art, senior common rooms and a restaurant. Full-height windows at either end of the structure allow the surrounding landscape to form a backdrop to the exhibition and dining areas, while aluminium louvres, linked to light sensors, line the interior to provide an infinitely flexible system for the control of natural and artificial light. Large enough to display the Sainsburys’ extraordinary collection, yet designed to be intimate and inviting, the main gallery space extends the spirit of the collection’s originally domestic setting.

A new gift from the Sainsburys in 1988 allowed the building to be extended to provide space for the display of the reserve collection, together with curatorial and conservation facilities and a gallery for exhibitions and conferences, giving the Centre far greater flexibility in its programming. The new wing extends the building at basement level, exploiting the natural contours of the site to emerge naturally in the form of a glazed crescent incised into the grassy bank. In 2004 a further programme of improvements was initiated to provide additional display space, an internal link between the main and Crescent Wing galleries, improved shop, café and other visitor facilities, and a new education centre.


24 photos and 7 drawings
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Building Activity