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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 as an academic and social focus within the campus. The Sainsburys shared a belief that the study of art should be an informal, pleasurable experience, 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 brought a new level of refinement to the practice's early explorations into lightweight, flexible enclosures

Structural and service elements are contained within the double-layer walls and roof. Within this shell is a sequence of spaces that incorporates galleries, a reception area, the Faculty of Fine Art, senior common room and a restaurant.

Full-height windows at each end open the space up to the surrounding landscape, while louvres line the interior to provide a highly 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 - or 'living area' - evokes 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 space for exhibitions and conferences, giving the Centre greater flexibility in its programming.

The new wing extends the building below ground level, exploiting the contours of the site to emerge in the form of a glazed crescent incised in the landscape. In 2006 a further programme of improvements was completed, which provides an internal link between the main and Crescent Wing galleries, a new education centre, additional display space, and improved shop, café and other visitor amenities.

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“Given the brief, you could have produced separate pavilions. Assuming a strong link between the collection, in terms of works of art, and a school teaching the history of art, you could fuse those two elements together; add to that a restaurant, a senior common room, and a special exhibition pavilion and you have a potential total of our buildings. On the other hand, you could make the leap and say that the linkage between all those elements was so strong that the case for making one building form them was overwhelming.” Norman Foster

“I said that I was interested as a spectator in seeing works of art; I was not really interested in catalogues, though I enjoyed tem in their own right. I was unhappy in a building that was monumental or pompous. I felt that the experience was all-important: the building should be a nice place to be in. It seemed that a certain common cause emerged as the discussions proceeded.” Norman Foster

“I have never regarded myself as a collector in the most usually accepted sense of the word, although I have to admit that I have for over 40 years been a ‘passionate acquirer’ of works of art that have appealed to me, regardless of period or style.” Sir Robert Sainsbury

“The louvers become translucent, celebrating the openness and lightness of the trusses and allowing views up and through the length of the roof. The effect is one of remarkable finesse, the layers of louvre, truss structure, catwalk grille and balustrade combining to create weightless architectural abstractions, constantly changing and suffused by daylight.” Graham Vickers

“It is certainly true that Norman’s building has aroused extraordinary passions among architects, writers and art historians. My personal prize goes to the description of the building as ‘fetishist expressionism.’ Sir Robert Sainsbury

“The year of the Sainsbury Centre was, as it happens, the first year I saw the Parthenon. Both experiences were exhilarating.” Robert Maxwell, AD Profiles, 19 August 1978

Appointment: 1974
Completion: 1978

Area: 6,186m²

Client: University of East Anglia

Structural Engineer: Anthony Hunt Associates
Quantity Surveyor: Hanscomb Partnership
M+E Engineer: Foster Associates
Landscape Architect: Lanning Roper
Lighting Engineer: Claude R Engle


  • LABC East Anglia Built-In Quality Award – Best Public Community Project, Highly Commended,
  • “Museum of the Year” Award
  • Ambrose Congreve Award
  • 6th International Prize for Architecture, Brussels
  • British Tourist Board Award
  • R.S. Reynolds Memorial Award
  • Structural Steel Finniston Award
  • Royal Institute of British Architects Award

Related Press Release

Masterpieces: Art and East Anglia exhibition to inaugurate the new Sainsbury Centre galleries

The Robert Sainsbury Lecture 2013

The Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts is equipped for the future

25 Years: The Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts

The Robert Sainsbury Lecture 2013

The Robert Sainsbury Lecture 2013

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Website: www.scva.ac.uk