img(height="1" width="1" style="display:none" src="")

Superstructures: Where it all began

Header Image

Isabelle Priest

The biggest exhibit in this celebration of high-tech at the Sainsbury Centre in Norwich is the building itself, but there are more delights for architects

Sainsbury Centre Crescent Wing
Sainsbury Centre Crescent Wing Credit: Richard Davies

East Anglia does not immediately spring to mind as a place that gave birth to one of the only architectural movements that ever started in Britain. But add the Willis Building, completed in 1975 in Ipswich, to Norwich’s 1978 Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts (both by Foster & Partners), and you could say that the ‘high-tech’ architecture of the 1960s to 1990s had East Anglian beginnings.

It’s appropriate then that, 40 years after the Sainsbury Centre was opened, the building and the achievements of its architectural milieu are being celebrated in a new exhibition which renames the genre ‘Superstructures’, and tells the story of architecture’s post-war fascination with technology, lightweight structures and engineering.

The building itself is the largest object in the show. The fantastic, vast hangar-like space still makes you gasp and feels every bit as modern today, so it’s disappointing to discover that its anniversary exhibition has been poked into four windowless spaces in the basement; fake plastic girders strung up to the ceiling. No matter how gripped you are by what’s on show, it’s impossible to shake the thought that it would be better to be upstairs, absorbing the atmosphere and mega architecture of the real thing.

However, once you’ve got over these spatial issues, what of the exhibition?

  • Sainsbury Centre construction 1975-1978
    Sainsbury Centre construction 1975-1978 Credit: The Art History Photographic Collection, University of East Anglia, Michael Brandon-Jones
  • Sainsbury Centre construction 1975-1978
    Sainsbury Centre construction 1975-1978 Credit: Foster + Partners, Alan Howard

Curated by head of the School of Critical Studies and Creative Industries at Kingston University, Jane Pavitt (also of the V&A’s Postmodernism exhibition), and Renwick Gallery curator in charge Abraham Thomas, the show begins with a new 3m-long model of Sainsbury Centre itself and a two-part series of delightful ink and marker Birkin Haward perspective drawings of the centre as it was conceived. The curators wanted the show to ‘unpack the term high-tech to develop a more nuanced definition away from style’ and towards seeing it as an attitude, process or movement.

From here follows a long corridor charting a linear process of how high-tech developed, rooting it very firmly in the trajectory of history from British Victorian engineering. The interpretation begins with the metal roof of the now-demolished Hungerford Fish Market (1830), the Crystal Palace (1850), and Fowler and Baker’s Forth Bridge (1882-1889), moving very quickly to Buckminster Fuller’s 1937 Dymaxion Car and 1965 Geodesic Dome, the Japanese Metabolists and the influence of the Festival of Britian and Archigram, mixing in Superstructure projects such as Ian Ritchie and Volkurin Marg’s 1993 Messe-Leipzig Garden Hall in a large model along the way. It identifies the ‘kit of parts’ approach of high-tech as emerging from Jean Prouvé, sourcing original panels that demonstrate using off the shelf extruded aluminium and steel sheeting to create architecture. In the background lurks the ‘white heat’ of technological revolution, and anxieties and challenges of the Cold War.

  • Crystal Palace details of bracing between columns
    Crystal Palace details of bracing between columns Credit: Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851
  • Hongkong & Shanghai Bank
    Hongkong & Shanghai Bank Credit: Foster + Partners, Ian Lambot
  • ZipUp House Detail colour presentation competition model, scale 1:20
    ZipUp House Detail colour presentation competition model, scale 1:20 Credit: Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners, Eamonn O'Mahony

After this point the exhibition is arranged over two large galleries according to building type: factories, transport and infrastructure, corporate campus, private homes and retail. Each section is brought to life by a mix of technical drawings, photographs, prototype building parts and models, which tend to be vast – several square metres – in size. While many of the drawings are recognisable from books and other exhibitions, the collection of models that has been brought together is outstanding. On display are contemporary models of Cedric Price’s work, Team 4’s Reliance Controls Factory (1965), Foster’s Stansted Airport (also East Anglia, 1991), Grimshaw’s Waterloo (1990) and Jean Nouvel’s Fondation Cartier (1991), on loan from organisations all over the world as well as architecture studios. Many of these models are as old as the Sainsbury Centre itself, yet are presented immaculately.

There are some holes in the exhibition though. Most obviously, it neglects to explain the profiles of the architects involved and how they are interconnected. There is only a handful of firms presented in the exhibition, but it deals firmly with built or proposed buildings only. While architect visitors might not notice, so distracted by the incredible models, representation of the architects and their backgrounds would have provided an additional tempo to the show that is missing.

  • Hopkins House at night
    Hopkins House at night Credit: Hopkins, Mathew Weinreb
  • Ben Johnson, Inmos Central Spine, 1985 Acrylic on canvas
    Ben Johnson, Inmos Central Spine, 1985 Acrylic on canvas Credit: Ben Johnson
  • Ben Johnson, East Mast with Gridline Beam and Outriggers, 1986 Acrylic on canvas
    Ben Johnson, East Mast with Gridline Beam and Outriggers, 1986 Acrylic on canvas Credit: Ben Johnson
  • Kit of parts 1-1 exhibits at Superstructures, Norwich.
    Kit of parts 1-1 exhibits at Superstructures, Norwich. Credit: Isabelle Priest
  • Image of Foster + Partners' Stansted Airport model.
    Image of Foster + Partners' Stansted Airport model. Credit: Isabelle Priest

In this same way, it is unclear where the contextual references for high-tech exhibits at the beginning are collected from; whether they are the interpretation of the curators, researched from quotes and secondary sources, or through conversations with the architects. Whichever is the case, the way the story of high-tech adamantly begins in the 1830s but completely skips modernism feels deliberately provocative, especially as the overarching narrative on display – machines for living, kit of parts architecture, industry-inspired and clean construction buildings – reads very much as a continuation of the principles of modernism, perhaps more accurately realised than the early modernist projects. Also, until you open the catalogue there’s no discussion of the fact that this architectural approach shares the same timescale as postmodernism – how they co-existed and what was going on culturally that enabled them both. Indeed, the same goes for the commercialisation of architecture – note that, in contrast to the previous period of brutalist architecture, there are no welfare state projects here.

This brings up the final point that, since all these architects are still alive and working, the exhibition could have included video interviews with them speaking today. This would have added diversity to the display and been an excellent research resource into the future.

In all, if you haven’t been to the Sainsbury Centre, and if you like models and technical drawings, it’s definitely worth the trip, and there is Denys Lasdun’s 1960s ziggurat student housing and Architype’s thatched Entreprise Centre (2015) just metres away to see too. 

Superstructures: The new architecture 1960-1990. Sainsbury Centre of Visual Arts, Norwich, until 2 September 2018. £12, £10.50 concessions