“The Biography of a Building” raps the hard life and good times of The Sainsbury Centre for the Visual Arts at the University of East Anglia: a massive edifice of steel and glass completed in ’78 and nicknamed “The Shed.” The Sainsbury Centre was an early example of the High Tech movement that still makes its mark today.
The book is also a who’s who of 70s British art society and architecture: there’s Sir Robert and Lady Lisa Sainsbury, whose acquisition of rare paintings and sculptures could fill a rock quarry, and Lord Norman Foster, the visionary architect who designed the Sainsbury Centre to hold this collection.
Characters in place, the author lays bare the raw, messy process of constructing the esteemed museum. We see setbacks, breakthroughs, “eureka” moments, and more drama than “Fix My Kitchen.” By the end, we’ve witnessed the birth of one of the most influential structures in four decades.
While there aren’t as many illustrations as the “visual reader” prefers, Rybczynski ‘s telling of this absorbing story makes up for the high word-picture ratio. And the 50 photos, schematics and early concepts are insightful selections.
In the book’s central irony, Lord Sainsbury wished for a building that wasn’t iconic or “a positive statement.” To our enjoyment 32 years later, he got both instead.
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Generously helping out this week with book reviews, like the one above, is the witty, talented and much-appreciated Daniel Mennega, who lives and writes in Austin, Texas.