diamond geezer

 Monday, August 05, 2019

The Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts is part of the campus of the University of East Anglia on the western outskirts of Norwich. Sir Robert Sainsbury and Lady Lisa Sainsbury wanted somewhere to exhibit their lifetime's collection of art, and Cambridge said no, but UEA said yes. The design was Norman Foster's first commission for a public building, and comprises a huge hangar with glass-walled ends and an open plan interior. It opened in 1978. It's a prime example of Structural Expressionism. It's listed. It appears as the Avengers HQ in a couple of recent films. Do not come on a Monday because it is closed.

The main collection is free to view. A hundred or so items are scattered across the interior, most of these laid out on individual plinths and carefully spotlit from the overhead gantry. The Sainsburys had a particular penchant for global art, especially tribal artefacts exhibiting exceptional craftspersonship, and also a thing for the colour brown. Almost all of the exhibits are some shade of brown, which gives the display an unusual cohesion. The grocery duo knew Francis Bacon personally, so own an uncommonly high number of his portraits. It feels a bit like walking around an airport terminal but where the duty-free is high-class art.

Partway down the hangar a chunk of student-related space intervenes, including an art library and a mezzanine study zone. Keep walking through to find an elevated exhibition area, accessed by spiral staircase, and then an upmarket café where the jacket potatoes are priced in half pounds. We enjoyed our jacket potatoes. A further spiral staircase provides a dramatic entrance from the adjacent campus, connecting to a footbridge which intrudes diagonally into the heart of the gallery space. Most people, less prosaically, walk in at ground level from the adjacent car park.

After a successful first decade the Sainsburys sought to open an extension, which Norman Foster cunningly slotted in underground rather then wreck the rectilinear form of the original building. A new crescent wing was dug beneath the turf at one end, and is used to host large paid-for exhibitions celebrating diverse artists. The latest of these is by Magdalene Odundo, the acclaimed ceramicist, and features a goodly number of her smooth and sinuous orange and black pots. It's hard to justify a £13 admission fee with just pots, so it's just as well the final gallery showcases her largest work - 1001 glass needles hung from the ceiling of to suggest a murmuration of starlings.

The area around the main building is now used as a sculpture park, including strange metal beasts, geometric towers and louche Henry Moores. Best pick up a map to make sure you don't miss any. The exterior of the site is also the university campus, so essentially you're being invited to wander around the UEA site and admire its brutalist architecture. A wall of departmental buildings stretches along the top of the slope - look out for the Anthony Gormley life-sized figures positioned on a couple of rooftops. But chief amongst Denys Lasdun's concrete constructions are the pyramidal student accommodation blocks known as the Ziggurats. And blimey.

Each block consists of a stepped stack rising from ten flats at ground level to a single penthouse at the peak. Each student is afforded a similarly slim view across a sweep of meadow towards a lake in the valley beyond (but at this time of year there are no students, which is all the better for getting up close and peering). The corner rooms are utilitarian communal kitchens with hobs and toasters which look very much like 1960s originals. The ziggurats don't look nearly as impressive from the service road behind as they do from the front, and they may not be in tiptop condition inside, but what a stunning setting for scholarly study. [10 photos]

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