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4 December 2019updated 25 Jul 2021 3:56pm

“It was very, very controversial“: how a Camden Town Sainsbury’s became Grade II listed

By Lou Stoppard

On a recent drizzly Tuesday, the Sainsbury’s Superstore in Camden Town was doing a bustling trade. A man in a tweed flat cap bought a copy of the Daily Mail and considered, before rejecting, a £1.75 punnet of British strawberries. A young man in Nike trainers queued for cigarettes, greeting another customer with a nod. A man in a burgundy jumper and beige cord suit carried a lone butternut squash in his basket. Little was out of the ordinary, except, perhaps the man carrying a large suitcase, who bought 12 jumbo packs of antibacterial wipes.

Yet this Sainsbury’s is unique. On 19 July 2019, it became the first purpose-built supermarket to be listed by Historic England, which gave it Grade II status. Designed and built between 1986 and 1988 by Nicholas Grimshaw and Partners, it was praised by the listing report as a key example of High-Tech architecture, a style pioneered by Grimshaw, alongside firms such as Fosters and Rogers, which favours grainless modernity – all aluminium panels, smooth steel columns and interchangeability; mezzanines that can be adjusted, or cladding that can be moved around to reposition windows. The report called the Sainsbury’s “a rare example of the important but typically mundane post-war building type, the supermarket, being designed as a highly original, bespoke piece of architecture; a project made possible by the ambition of the architects, the client and the local authority.” On this particular Tuesday, a blonde lady stood in the cold meats section. She shopped here quite a lot, she told me. She had “no idea” about the listing, she said, surveying some prosciutto, before glancing briefly at the arched steel roof.

Neven Sidor was the lead architect on the project. It was, he tells me over the telephone, “one of the most stressful periods in my life.” Grimshaw, who have since built the Eden Project in Cornwall and The National Space Centre in Leicester, were at the time a small office of about fifteen people. Only seven worked on this project, which was tricky, Sidor explains, as the supermarket was part of a broader complex featuring two other buildings, of all which Grimshaw’s team were tasked with designing – one is a set of workshop spaces, sat high above basement parking, which face onto Kentish Town Road; the other is a row of terraced housing facing the Regent’s Canal. “We don’t do easy projects. We only do really difficult projects, that are only just possible,” says Sidor. “There was this huge pressure from Sainsbury’s to be open by Christmas.”

While architecture fans may notice the striking silver facade, most passing Londoners are more likely to notice how unusual it is to have such a large supermarket in this bustling location, just a minute or so from Camden Town tube station and the market, with all its excitable tourists and sullen teenage goths. “The supermarket is not an urban building form, it’s an out of town building form,” agrees Sidor. “It’s a big box surrounded by a car park and we had to somehow make this functionally and architecturally acceptable right in the middle of Camden Town.” The firm were on a mission to prove that their High-Tech style was something that could work in the context: “At that time all we were doing was out of town projects – factories, an ice rink, sports centres. It was a kind of intellectual challenge, showing that the method could work in a city centre.” Sainsbury’s rules and demands for layout, storage and refrigeration meant much of their plan for the inside of the building had to be abandoned, and in the end all they really managed to push through was the arched roof; “a modern equivalent of the old gothic trick of flying buttresses.” As a whole, the process was, Sidor recalls, like “trying to broker a treaty between a national company and the local context.”   

Sainsbury’s had bought the land in the early 1980s, but struggled to get a store up. A proposal by architects Scott Brownrigg and Turner was rejected internally by Colin Amery, an architectural critic for the Financial Times employed as an advisor by Sir John Sainsbury. Amery suggested a better architect was needed, and proposed Grimshaw. It was “a shotgun marriage between us and Sainsbury’s,” says Sidor. To make the proposals work, two older buildings had to come down, including a large redbrick factory, the former home of the Aerated Bread Company. “It was very, very controversial,” recalls Sidor. “We had a public consultation and our proposal was not popular at all, particularly with the Camden literati – I remember Alan Bennett coming around the exhibition giving one of my colleagues a hard time.” The fact Grimshaw’s once contentious, futuristic building is now listed is an amusing, unexpected new twist; “It’s funny, you never know what you’re doing when you do it,” Sidor says.

In London, it’s often said that you’re never more than six feet away from a rat. The same could potentially be said of a Tesco Express. Or a Sainsbury’s Local or a Co-op. Londoners take our supermarket access seriously – and we are spoilt for choice. It is a unique situation; New York, by contrast, is notoriously devoid of supermarkets, save for a spattering of eye-wateringly expensive Whole Foods. “Where Did My Supermarket Go?” asked The New York Times in 2016; ironic, given that the founder of the modern supermarket as we know it is usually credited as an American, Vincent Astor who opened Astor Market on Manhattan in 1915, uniting different kinds of stores into single place to buy flowers, food, vegetables and meat.

Yet, the supermarket looms large in the UK imagination – a hub for gossiping, congregating, judging and flirting. A place where someone keeps an eye on your nan as she pops in on her errands. A place where teenage couples share a first kiss against the romantic backdrop of a “3 for 2” offer. In Pulp’s Common People, the education into the life of the everyman begins, of course, here: “I took her to a supermarket, I don’t know why, But I had to start it somewhere.”

At the Camden Sainsbury’s, large windows allow passers-by to glance inside, and survey shoppers lapping the aisles. If you’re approaching from the canal, the set of silver houses block the view of lorries entering and leaving. “It looks like a spaceship has landed on the canal,” says Deborah Mays, Head of Listing Advice at Historic England. Near the houses is the workshop building, Grand Union House, which currently displays a sign, erected by Stellar, which advertises proposals for a redevelopment of this section of Grimshaw’s building – led by Andrew Phillips Architects, it will include a new façade, 5,000 sqm of modern offices, six houses and a roof terrace. “We hope you will support our ambitions,” the sign reads, earnestly. “Bollocks will I,” someone has written in yellow market. Another, in orange, has scrawled “Great, more aspirational buildings & yuppies. Yay!!”

The sign, and its graffiti, hints at a broader drama which underpins this Supermarket’s listing status. Late in 2018, The Twentieth Century Society, a group which campaign to safeguard post-1914 design and architecture, received a tip off from the South Kentish Town Conservation Area Advisory Committee that a planning application had been put in to redevelop Grand Union House. By January of 2019, the society’s caseworker Grace Etherington had commissioned a full report into the importance of the three Grimshaw buildings – the supermarket, the workshops and the housing – and submitted a listing application.

She asked that Historic England list all the buildings together, as one complex, as they were designed. “The multiple usage thing was very pioneering at the time,” Etherington says. She has concerns about how quickly buildings like these can be undermined or warped, through overzealous refurbishment or piecemeal hacks. “If people aren’t aware of how ambitious these buildings are then it’s hard to get them to act in a sensitive way,” she explains. “These types of buildings are under equal threat as something that’s 10 times as old.” In the end, only the supermarket and the housing was listed. “We don’t agree with the decision,” says Etherington. The future of Grimshaw’s workshops, Grand Union House, is uncertain. “We will keep pushing,” she says.

Around 300-400 buildings are listed by Historic England each year (this doesn’t include war memorials, which would increase the number exponentially). It’s hardly surprising that, until now, a supermarket hasn’t made the cut. “What supermarkets think they need is a big shed in a massive sea of carparking, so it’s often not a very inspiring brief,” Catherine Croft, Director of the Twentieth Century Society, tells me. She argues that most supermarkets “ape agricultural barn complexes or Thirties factories (both building types with minimal windows), but they rarely do it with any conviction and usually look overgrown and embarrassed to be there, like a very ungainly adolescent.”

That said, there are a couple of examples that were on Historic England’s radar for being, according to Mays, “far more than the average mundane big box”, including the Greenwich Sainsbury’s by Chetwood Associates, notable both for its environmental performance and its design. But Camden Sainsbury’s is “a different league”, Mays says.

Listing a supermarket could read as a moment of pre-emptive nostalgia – a nod to a time where we got up and out to buy things, rather than just waiting for the delivery man. The listing comes as a time of great change for bricks and mortar retail. Currently, Historic England are on a push to save things. “The focus is very much on the high street,” says Mays. “We want to leave behind high streets that are energised and communities that feel like they have some ownership of their place again, that values it – that takes a lot of work.”

Last month, in September, Historic England were awarded £95 million from the Culture Secretary Nicky Morgan to work on heritage projects in high streets in 69 towns across the country. According to Mays, the aim is to “avoid the banal, mundane and repeating.” The project’s success may be open to interpretation; it goes beyond cleaning up storefronts or filling empty units. “I think that listing has benefits far beyond what it’s understood to do,” she tells me. “It doesn’t freeze a building, it just makes sure that its character survives. It’s very hard to measure the impact of good architecture – as so much of it is intangible. We talk about ‘well-being’ a lot but there are increasing statistics showing that its good for peoples’ heath to be living somewhere where they feel comfortable, where they have a sense of identity and place, where they aren’t just another number.”

While Grimshaw’s Sainsbury’s is now listed, it is, as Mays say, not frozen. The move protects the building, but doesn’t automatically guarantee it will keep its purpose. Some hungry developer, down the line, may think it could make a great delivery depot, or Amazon pick-up centre, or some hyped-up co-working space. A total change would be a shame, says Sidor; “People talk about how the next decade isn’t going to be about goods but experience – maybe Sainsbury’s could reconfigure it to a new pattern of trading.” It could make a good gym, muses Etherington. Or office space, offers her colleague Croft, though she hopes not. “I hope it remains a supermarket for as long as possible,” she said. “Not least as manifest evidence that not all supermarkets need be architecturally uninspired.”

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