Sainsbury Centre


Have you ever been in a space so wonderful that it grabs your whole attention? I mean, a man-made space. One that takes your breath away. 

I'm interested in what influences people to love the visual: seeing, being moved. What encourages a child to learn to see, when the world feeds so much left brain, linear information in schools and through curriculum. One profound form of artwork we all live with daily is architecture.

I found myself down for the count this past week and away from the computer. However I was revived by the news that the architect I admire more than any in the world will be here in town in a few days. Having bought a ticket to the talk he's giving, I am prompted to remember why I am so thankful for Sir Norman Foster.

Not only did I grow up near the Sainsbury Center in England, Foster's first building, and an extraordinary space to grab a child's attention and passion for design, but even here in Boston, Foster's hand is evident. With the recently built American Wing of the Museum of Fine Arts, Foster added an impressive seventy new galleries. He also reoriented the wayward museum back to its classical, symmetrical plan by restoring and reopening the original central entrances. And he cast off the 80's austerity of I.M. Pei's angular add-on. I love him for that.

But the building that most comes to mind, his pièce de résistance, is the renovation of the British Museum in London, England's second most visited attraction and now Europe's largest covered public square. 

I was privileged to visit the Museum several times this past spring while on a trip to the UK with one of my children. I was very familiar with the pre-Foster museum because of the dedication of my high school Latin teacher who led enthusiastic field trips there in the 80's. It was the last place I visited before leaving the UK in 1990. And the first I returned to 24 years later, back in London. I was eager to see the touted changes that Foster had made.

The museum itself houses artifacts from the gamut of known history. Highlights include the Rosetta Stone whose three parallel scripts, including Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, allowed those obscure characters to be understood, opening up the world of Ancient Egypt.  The museum also houses the Elgin Marbles, rescued (stolen?) from the Parthenon in Athens.

My favorite displays are from mysterious past of Assyria and Babylon and it was those that we sketched and photographed the most. But the building itself was hard to drag ourselves away from. We were thankful to be staying only a few blocks away so we could visit more than once.


The Sainsbury Centre, Norwich

Norman Foster's first building, the 1978 Sainsbury Centre for the Visual Arts, Norwich, England

The British Museum, London

The classical exterior of the British Museum

The surprise inside: the magnificent diamond-paned roof spanning Europe's largest covered square

The Museum as the greatest artifact

The inviting wide stairs

At the top of the rotunda. A well placed restaurant space. Photo: Naomi Geffken

Patterns of light everywhere

Up close with a capitol, at the top of the rotunda

The author, sketching. Photo: Naomi Geffken

The Boston Book Festival states:

Norman Foster’s radical design thinking and iconic buildings have ensured him a place of honor in the pantheon of modern architects. Dubbed the “Mozart of Modernism” by architecture critic Paul Goldberger, Foster has designed some of the twenty-first century’s most recognizable landmarks. ... Foster’s work, as described by the Pritzker Prize committee, “forges the materials of our age into a crystalline, lyrical purity that is highly personal, brilliantly functional, and … just downright beautiful.” Without question, Foster is the most influential architect of our time.

I will let you know what he says.