Mastering the art of restoration


    Home to awe-inspiring works of art and – at one time – a superhero film set, the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts is one of the most prominent university art galleries in Britain and a major national centre for the study and presentation of art. Best known for works by famed artists such as Henry Moore, Francis Bacon and Alberto Giacometti, the centre is a true icon of art, culture and design.

    Within its unique interior, light, air and humidity in the East of England's largest climate-controlled exhibition space are carefully measured to conserve the valuable art works and objects displayed within. .

    Maintaining our heritage

    Preserving the building’s exterior curves and modernistic design, however, is another matter entirely. Lashed by the Great British weather and subject to the wear and tear of the tens of thousands of visitors that pass through its doors each year, the iconic steel structure and glass facades are in need of vital works to repair and protect the defining aspects of this unique, architectural jewel at the heart of our campus.

    One of Lord Norman Foster’s first and most important architectural projects, the building was constructed in what went on to become his signature style - a “universal space” to welcome visitors keen to view the extraordinary art collection of Sir Robert and Lady Sainsbury housed within.

    Recognising the need to protect this icon of our heritage, Historic England took steps to list the Sainsbury Centre in December 2012. Grade II buildings are noted as “particularly important buildings of more than special interest”. Of the estimated 500,000 buildings listed in England, only 5.8% are Grade II.

    Despite its sleek, futuristic appearance, the Sainsbury Centre was built over 40 years ago; like any building, regular repairs are needed to keep it in good shape. Whilst many repairs can be done relatively simply, specialist surveys have identified some of the works required are incredibly complex – and costly. 

    A giant-sized restoration

    An integral part of the building's design are the glass walls at each end of the building. Constructed of glazed panels standing an incredible 7.3m high and stabilised by glass “fins”, the walls allow unrestricted views out to the landscape and give visitors the feeling of the building rising unsupported above.

    Since the original installation back in the late 1970s, these unique glass fins have sustained significant damage. Whilst some specialist care and attention has helped to repair some of the more minor issues, the extent of the damage means the integrity of the building is now at major risk unless two of these gigantic glass fins are replaced entirely.  

    A long journey ahead

    Sourcing such bespoke items, manufactured over 40 years ago, is incredibly complicated – and expensive. This work must meet the strict requirements for a Grade II listed English Heritage building and ensure no compromise of the original groundbreaking design.

    Since the UEA was founded with a motto of “Do Different” preserving this unique part of our campus heritage is a cause close to our hearts. Thanks to the support of Arts Council England who kindly offered to fund half of the estimated £650,000 repair bill, a manufacturer was located in Germany who are able to reproduce the glass fins as closely as possible to the original specification, including colour-matching the unique blue hue that gives the centre such beautiful quality of light.

    Despite supply-chain setbacks due to the pandemic, the replacement fins are almost ready to set off on their long journey across Europe to their new home here in Norwich, where the job of fitting these gigantic panes of glass will begin. We look forward to bringing you further updates on this progress.

    Philanthropic support is vital

    At UEA we are committed to conserving this exceptional building so that it can remain open to all but the delicate balance of welcoming visitors and meeting the demands of caring for treasured and vulnerable objects is an ongoing concern.

    We’d love to talk to you about how you can help us to protect this wonderful resource – as well as our vital ongoing work to develop and safeguard our campus  - for future generations to enjoy. To find out more, please get in touch with the Development Team: 

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