The Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts

Growing up just west of Norwich, the UEA broad was always a regular walk for me. The Sainsbury Centre was already embedded in the landscape and had had multiple expansions by this time due to its popularity. Besides the expression of the structure, an iconic Norman Foster feature, my other interests in the building are for its uses.

Hosting a museum of Sir Robert Sainsbury's art collection, alongside visiting exhibitions from all around the globe, the museum has become a big part of the international art world mostly due to the Robert and Lisa Sainsbury's art connections throughout their lives and now through the legacy that has been structuralised in the museum.


The Sainbury's art collection began through Robert Sainsbury and slowly grew through both Robert and Lisa as they invested smartly in paintings, sculptures and artefacts. They knew their house was becoming too small for their collection, and also it was somewhat unappreciated. Robert and Lisa's idea to give back to the university system and also for others to appreciate the collection led to the development of the The Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts and so, the process began.

Foster Architects was one of many names put forward for the development and subsequently chosen as the main architect alongside Kho Liang Le as the interior architect. Early in his career, Foster speaks of his experiences with the Sainsbury's and the hierarchy of the University of East Anglia in the foreword of 'The Biography of a Building' by Witold Rybczynski;

"As I saw it,  they put their very hearts and souls into the venture - with manifest end results. This unusual form of patronage was inquisitive, industrious and creative, so much so that it is an important part of the story of the building itself."

Multiple sites were on the list, ranging from next to the Arts College, to somewhere near to the later built Sportspark, to it's current site. This site was chosen as it had good infrastructure which would reduce costs and disruption to the university, alongside issues made by Foster such as reducing the risk of having an 'Arts Ghetto'; where all the Creative Arts buildings were in one area. What this meant for the museum was that it would be used by all students and public alike, as it wouldn't simply be forgotten in a mass of student use buildings.

The chosen site would provide a view of two majestic buildings side by side; next to the now listed student housing buildings designed by Denys Lasdun. The student housing, known as the Ziggurats provide a sixties brutalist look, contrasting to the Sainsbury Centre's modern style. This creates a drama between the two, however both cannot be denied as two historic pieces of architecture.

Throughout the years many additions have been made to the Sainsbury Centre, a new basement area designed for visiting exhibitions, a new office block in front of the main facade of the building and also a bridge connecting the museum to the main walkway of the university.

Kenny Bridge creates a joining of the main campus, however being only a one person width, it is small enough to be ignored when chosen. The view gained when entering the museum from this entrance is stunning, a massive glass door provides a sense of scale and almost forces the entrants to turn around to close the door, and the turn back is a spectacular view of the inside. These additions were made after the success of the museum and showing that the university is not only for the students but also for public visitors.

The museum helps the students by providing amazing artwork to study in a brilliant environment, however I believe the economy of the university is helped as well, bringing visitors to the area and making what can sometimes be a cloud against use of the university facilities by the public become much clearer.

The overall view out of the museum is stunning, over the man made lake of the UEA, and towards the Ziggurats and other university buildings. It's functionality is naturally a given being designed around it's possible uses, however this has opened up to many different functions. Most recently it has been used in both British TV Drama; 'Black Mirror' and a claim to fame for any Norfolk native; the base of the Avengers, featuring in both 'Avengers: Age of Ultron' and 'Ant-Man'.

The main use remains though, and is shown in some ways through the front and rear views; the angles of the main frame of the building being reminiscent of a picture frame. Alongside the love of it's original founders which has been added in front of the building.


Robert and Lisa Sainbury's love of the human form and sculptures is what started this building and is what has evolved it since, even in the absence of the late Sir Robert Sainsbury. The legacy that was created by them and has been eternalised by Norman Foster and the UEA board, will continue to thrive in and propel the art world forward both through exhibiting great work and educating the students of the next generations.