Stephen Hodder’s inspiration: Sainsbury Centre, Norwich
Stephen Hodder recalls how he was set to be a champion of vernacular architecture until he visited Foster Associates’ Sainsbury Centre
Sainsbury Centre for the Visual Arts
University of East Anglia, Norwich
There is a moment in an architect’s life when they search for a certain direction and want to be uplifted and inspired. This is what the Sainsbury Centre did for me in 1978. At a time when people were rediscovering the values of context and tradition in architecture, this building restated some of the constants of architecture and showed that you can attain richness from just a simple idea. By rethinking the nature of gallery space, it reminded me of the great ability of modern architecture to continually reinvent itself.
I heard about the Sainsbury Centre in my third year at the Manchester School of Architecture. At the time, a sub-movement in vernacular architecture was prominent at the university. Peter Aldington of Aldington Craig & Collinge was a visiting lecturer and Ron Brunskill, who wrote the great work on vernacular architecture, was also teaching there. As a result, vernacular architecture was my main point of reference.
We each chose a building to analyse and while I chose Frank Lloyd Wright’s Robie House in Chicago, one of my contemporaries chose the Sainsbury Centre, which had recently been completed. When I read his analysis, I struggled to understand the nature of the building, particularly how it was able to contain both a gallery and a university department in a single space — a gallery without walls, with seemingly no hierarchy to the circulation pattern.
It’s a magical, beautiful space, not a building that’s about an imposed style
My curiosity was further aroused by an exhibition of the work of Foster Associates at the Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester later that year.
I had to see it for myself. The following year I visited, entering at first-floor level through the Lasdun buildings via the linking walkway. The visit reinforced what I’d read. There is a great legibility to the building. As you walk down the spiral staircase you get a 360 degree view of the building, with alternating views of the lake and wood at either end. It’s a great introduction to the building. Quite apart from the majesty of this incredible, light-filled space, there is an ethereal quality. I remember seeing a green glow and realising it was a reflection of the trees in the ceiling. Then, you start to appreciate the nuances: how the lines of the internal louvres along the side and in the ceiling give this incredible perspective that draws your attention to views at either end; how the steel-framed structure extends out beyond the building to blur the interior and exterior, and how you feel completely immersed among the artefacts in the gallery, despite its vastness.
The Pompidou Centre had been completed the previous year and it was the dawn of hi-tech. But I don’t think of the Sainsbury Centre as a hi-tech building, although part of its significance was that there were so many technological firsts. It is a magical, beautiful space that is firmly grounded in the modern movement and not a building that’s about an imposed style.
Foster had recently completed the Fred Olsen Buildings (1969) and the Modern Art Glass factory (1973), and the Sainsbury Centre represented a culmination of this thinking. There was a concern for flexible space that would allow a building to change over its lifetime. The turning point for the design of this building was a sequence of decisions from the use of a clear-spanned space, to a solid frame and then to the use of triangular trusses of steel hollow sections that envelop a 2.4m-perimeter zone for the toilet pods and other “servant” space, such as the air-handling units that sit on top of these pods.
Over the top of the whole thing are walkways and gantries for maintenance that could go on without affecting the main, “served” space. Often air-handling units are placed on top of a building, but that restricts how you bring in light through the roof. Here, the brilliant idea of maintaining all the services in the interstitial perimeter space allows natural top light to flood into the main space. Apparently, this idea of trapezoidal trusses and interstitial spaces was a last minute change when the original tender drawings had already been completed.
In Foster’s Hongkong & Shanghai Bank, which came next (1979-86), there was the same preoccupation with creating a heavily serviced wrap around the building, leaving the space in the middle to change and adapt.
The other striking thing was that the Sainsbury Centre was largely assembled rather than built. Above the undercroft, everything was pre-assembled. The frame came to site ready-finished and just had to be lifted into place and joined. It was ahead of its time. There isn’t a single piece of wet construction. By a good many years, it pre-empted the move towards prefabrication and dry construction. How appropriate that it was while visiting this building that Buckminster Fuller famously posed the question: “How much does your building weigh, Mr Foster?”
I also think the building pre-empted the whole concept of a team working together — there were intense collaborations with the structural engineer, Anthony Hunt, and other consultants such as the lighting designer.
The precision is quite extraordinary and made a huge impact on me as a student. I’d never seen structural glass balustrades before, nor that sort of unobtrusive glass hydraulic lift. At the time, the structural glass fins on the lakeside elevation were the largest ever produced. The original side panels were profiled silver, inspired apparently by the sides of a Citroën van. And the toilets are brilliant — apparently they were a reference to the cabins of a Boeing 747 aircraft.
The relationship Foster established with Lord and Lady Sainsbury was fundamental to the building’s success. It was a remarkable client-architect relationship. They visited galleries together to work out what kind they wanted, including Mies van der Rohe’s National Gallery in Berlin and the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Denmark. The story is that Foster presented them with many options and Lady Sainsbury told him he should just do the one he wanted to do.
As you’d expect with a building as committed as this, it had mixed reviews at the time. It is a very particular response to the clients’ wishes and challenged the fairly typical sequential gallery space model. When you move among the objects between the zig-zag of partitions and the incidental gallery seating, there is an intimacy you can imagine the Sainsburys had in their own home. Yet there is a university department in there too, right next to the art collection, so students can mingle with the Giacomettis and Bacons — there is no dislocation.
Conceived in this spirit
For me, this experience was an awakening because it challenged everything I knew. At first, it very literally informed my own approach. I joined BDP after university and spent two years trying to emulate this building, designing silver sheds for British Gas and British Nuclear Fuels at Sellafield that were all very detailed, and examining the idea of the architecture of the shed.
As a young architect, my references and interpretation were quite literal. After I set up my own firm, I started to distil the abstract qualities of the building — the form, the light, the technology, prefabrication and how it was conceived and put together. Our current student residential tower in Manchester was conceived in this spirit. Indeed, our first major building, Colne Swimming Pool, for which we were joint winners of the RFAC Building of the Year, with Norman Foster in 1992, was designed with Anthony Hunt Associates and used similar technology.
The university department is right next to the collection so students can mingle with the Giacomettis and Bacons
After the 1979 visit, I hadn’t been back until last month. The way the building was conceived and put together means it still has a freshness about it. It doesn’t feel 33 years old and the 1991 extension is ingenious — it would have been so easy to extrude the shed, but instead they used the natural topography to create an underground gallery with a crescent window over the lake so the original building appears as if on a plinth.
However, the tremendous weeping figs that were originally near the entrance are a sad loss. They filtered the light, and even though I love how the building is so neutral, they were quite an interesting injection into the space. The drawn blinds that are now pulled over the glazed lake elevation are also unfortunate since they make the building feel a little introspective. The original open dialogue between the lake and the wood was a key relationship for me in the building.
It would be good if they did open them up again as part of the imminent refurbishment of the gallery, as I gather they might.
The biggest change is the replacement cladding — the insulation inside the silver panels started to corrode — and the new white cladding gives a much crisper quality to the building than I remember the original having.
I think it deserves a grade I listing. The practice was reinventing a building typology and at the same time creating an informative precursor to Stansted Airport, with its incredible top-lit transparency on the main concourse and the baggage handling below. Reyner Banham actually described the centre as resembling an aircraft hangar but there is still an intimacy with the art, with the gallery recreating the context of the collection in the Sainsburys’ home.
Trail-blazing design that came good on its promise of flexibility
Robert and Lisa Sainsbury commissioned Norman Foster to create a new home for their art collection after donating it to the University of East Anglia in 1973. The project, Foster’s first public commission, was conceived as two separate buildings — one for the art collection and one for the university’s facilities - but the design evolved into one large building containing both.
The building, which cost £4.2 million, opened in 1978 and was known as “The Shed” due to its hangar-like dimensions. It was particularly remarkable for its high propor-tion of off-site construction and for the arrangement of services within a 2.4m space around the periphery of the building to give a vast, unimpeded internal space — a last-minute design change.
Although some reviews were ambivalent, the building helped establish Foster’s global reputation. Witold Rybczynski’s new book on the structure, The Biography of a Building, describes how Philip Johnson said at the time: “There isn’t anyone in America who could do something as good as the Sainsbury Centre. England has at once become the leader in the engineering and technology game.”
Cracks started developing in the aluminium cladding panels by 1985 and were replaced in 1988 — this time with smooth white panels rather than silver ribbed ones. The centre was extended in 1991 by the largely underground Crescent Wing, built with engineer Anthony Hunt Associates.
The centre has embarked on a four-year refurbishment in collaboration with Foster. Next month, work completes on changes to the west end of the building, which will house a new restaurant and bar, two new galleries and a post-graduate study centre.
The centre is currently being considered for listing.