Designed between 1974 and 1976 and opened in 1978, the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts was Norman Foster’s first major public building. He was approached by Sir Robert and Lady Sainsbury to design an appropriate building to house both the collection which they had gifted to the University in 1973 and the School of Fine Art (now the School of World Art Studies and Museology). Located on a sloping east-west site close to the River Yare at the extreme edge of the campus, the 1978 building consists of the Living Area, which houses the permanent display of the Robert and Lisa Sainsbury Collection; a temporary exhibition space; the entrance Conservatory, with a gallery café; the School of World Art Studies and Museology; a large restaurant; the Robert Sainsbury Library and two mezzanines, used respectively for study areas and for the display of collections including the University of East Anglia Collection of Abstract and Constructivist Art Architecture and Design.
The accommodation of so many different functions under one roof called for a highly innovative approach and the resulting building remains revolutionary in the history of modern design. It is essentially a prefabricated modular structure, with individual factory-made parts being assembled on site. The impression is of one vast open space, without the internal divisions normally found in museums, and it is remarkable for its transparency and for the interplay of natural and artificial light. Spaces between the external cladding and the internal shutters accommodate plant and service functions and an underground corridor running along the spine of the building gives access to storage and workshop areas. It was Foster’s intention that the building be constructed in such a way as to allow for subsequent extension if necessary.
Close attention was paid to every detail of the building’s fitting out and furnishing and to the way in which the objects were displayed within it, and the 1978 building still looks very much as it did when it opened. By the late 1980s, however, the expansion of both activities and collections (which by now included not only the Robert and Lisa Sainsbury Collection and the University Collection but also the Anderson Collection of Art Nouveau) led to plans for further building. Instead of extending the 1978 building as originally planned, however, Foster proposed a new partially underground Crescent Wing to the east. This was opened in 1991 and offered new office and temporary exhibition areas, an open storage area for the reserve collection, technical workshops and a state-of-the-art conservation laboratory.
A further extension was completed in May 2006, linking the 1978 and 1991 buildings internally and providing an accessible lift, additional gallery and circulation spaces, an education and studio area and a new shop.