Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
The building, designed by architect Nicholas Grimshaw, is the first-ever supermarket to appear on the National Heritage List for England.
Following an announcement this week, Britain has a new, officially historic building: a 1980s grocery store. A North London supermarket, designed by architects Nicholas Grimshaw & Partners and completed in 1988, was just given a place on the National Heritage List for England, becoming the first supermarket ever to make the cut. The listing means the store will be protected from demolition or substantial changes to its “special architectural or historic interest.”
The U.K. already has a track record of preserving fairly recent, humble buildings, but even so, a newish outlet of a chain (the grocer Sainsbury’s) is a departure. So was Historic England right to protect a type of building which it acknowledges is usually “purely functional and architecturally uninspiring”?
Grimshaw’s supermarket certainly isn’t your average place to shop for groceries, at least not aesthetically. Built on an ex-industrial site in Camden Town, North London, the shop is in the style known as High Tech, with an exposed steel frame and ribs of aluminum cladding. It arguably strikes the viewer as a work of engineering first and architecture second, and as such fits quite neatly into the history of British retail architecture. Many British cities possess Victorian conservatory-style Market Halls—and the exposed ribs and high curved roof of the Camden Town building clearly echo these in a High-Tech language.
Attached to it along the Grand Union Canal is a row of similarly styled and rather beautiful houses, their metal cladding, round-cornered windows and slightly convex fronts somewhat recalling a moored ship on the waterfront.
It’s thus fair to say that the store is not aesthetically generic. There have nonetheless been some grumbles about its preservation—not, as is often the case when fairly new buildings are protected, from traditionalists, but from pro-densification advocates. As the U.K. Twitter account YIMBY Alliance noted, the store is fairly low-rise. With a preservation order in place (albeit one that does not cover Grimshaw-designed buildings at the supermarket’s rear), it’s highly unlikely that new homes will be added on the site of the supermarket itself, either replacing the store or on top of its existing roof.
That last idea might sound curious, but it’s something that occurs in contemporary London quite frequently. In a city where housing costs are high and space rare, supermarkets are currently prime sites for redevelopment. As CityLab has previously reported, their low roofs are often able to accommodate additional floors, while large grocery-store parking lots are less needed than in the past because the habit of the single weekly supermarket trip is starting to wane among city-dwellers—as is the habit of driving regularly.
The historic-listing decision seems to take this broader shift into account. While the supermarket is now protected and likely to stay as it is now indefinitely, buildings in the back will be demolished and replaced with apartments, so that new homes spring up on the site even as its main body is protected.
This seems a fair enough compromise. Significant older buildings are often protected, even though we are all aware that their sites could accommodate more housing. If we consider newer buildings also to be worthy of preservation, it only seems fair that they too are allowed to remain in their original, distinctive forms.