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Sainsbury Centre for the Visual Arts
University of East Anglia, Norwich, Norfolk, UK
Sainsbury Centre for the Visual Arts
associated engineer
Anthony Hunt
Anthony Hunt Associates
date  1978
UK era  Modern  |  category  Building  |  reference  TG189074
photo  courtesy Anthony Hunt
The Sainsbury Centre for the Visual Arts at the University of East Anglia houses a collection donated by Lord and Lady Sainsbury. The steel and glass building, set in an open landscape, represents an excellent example of the High Tech fusion of architecture and engineering, and is one of the few High Tech buildings that uses a bolt-together interchangeable panelling system.
The centre accommodates two exhibition galleries, the School of Fine Arts and various ancillary spaces. The brief for the building was exacting, based on the Sainbury's wide experience of galleries in Europe and the USA.
The single-span rectilinear structure is constructed from a series of steel frames composed of three-member trussed columns and roof beams, made of welded hollow steel tube. For the columns, two of the legs align with the facade of the building and the third sits at the line of the inner louvred walls. The column cross-bracing dimensions and the wall panel heights match at 1.2m. The bracing is spaced at 3.6m centres and aligns with every second panel bay.
The cambered roof trusses are simply supported, by platform plates at one end and pin joints at the other. The plates and joints were positioned in a way that allowed for connection adjustments during assembly, and the installation of curved cladding panels at the eaves. Engineer Anthony Hunt has said that this assembly allowed for manufacturing and site tolerances as well as enabling a visually-seamless portal frame of uniform dimension. In this instance, the structure has been adapted to suit the architectural vision.
The aluminium panels used for the walls were designed and made for this building. They are a uniform 1.8m by 1.2m and have EPDM gasket seals, which were welded on site into a net covering the whole building. The panel jointing gaskets double as guttering, discharging rainwater from the roof to the base of the building. The panels were vacuum formed from flat sheet and have strengthening ribs.
The two end walls of the building consist of a series of 7.3m high glass panels, jointed with silicon mastic, a pioneering technique in the development of the large scale frameless glass walling we have today.
The centre's internal dimensions are generated by the 36 bays of 3.6m each the end walls are each set-in by one bay. The internal height is 7.2m and the internal clear span is 28.8m. The building follows a strict logic in planning from inside to out and is formally proportioned in a length:width:height ratio of 16: 4:1.
All plant and services are contained within the depth of the structural zone, providing uninterrupted planar nterior and exterior surfaces. The internal walls and ceilings are formed by adjustable motorised aluminium louvres. Supplementary artificial lighting is sourced from within the ceiling void, also controlled by the automated louvres, providing uniform lighting levels in the galleries.
Access to the centre is via a raised glass-sided walkway leading to the upper level. A slender spiral staircase leads down to the galleries, completing a dramatic entrance route.
Architect: Foster Associates
Research: ND
"The Engineer's Contribution to Contemporary Architecture: Anthny Hunt"
by Angus Macdonald, Thomas Telford Ltd, London, 2000
"Tony Hunt's Structures Notebook" by Anthony Huny, Architectural Press, 1997
Interview with Anthony Hunt, 27th August 2008

Sainsbury Centre for the Visual Arts