Sainsbury's supermarket


Heritage Category:
Listed Building
List Entry Number:
Date first listed:
Statutory Address:
Sainsbury's Supermarkets Ltd, 17-21 Camden Road, London, NW1 9LJ


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Statutory Address:
Sainsbury's Supermarkets Ltd, 17-21 Camden Road, London, NW1 9LJ

The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.

Greater London Authority
Camden (London Borough)
Non Civil Parish
National Grid Reference:


Supermarket, 1986-88, to designs by Nicholas Grimshaw and Partners, architect in charge, Neven Sidor; structural engineers, Kenchington, Little and Partners.

Reasons for Designation

Sainsbury's supermarket, 17-21 Camden Road, London, is listed at Grade II for the following principal reasons:

Architectural interest:

* as a powerful piece of contextual inner-city High-Tech, integrating an overtly modern aesthetic into Camden’s historic urban grain; * in the creative use of structure to meet a challenging brief, boldly and exaggeratedly expressed to striking effect; * in the technological innovation of its intumescent coating, allowing the frame to be left exposed in a densely developed environment; * as a resourceful piece of retail planning which successfully meets the complex, space-hungry demands of a supermarket on a tight urban site; * as the centrepiece of a successful mixed-use scheme which marked a turning point in the career of Nicholas Grimshaw, one of the country’s leading proponents of High-Tech architecture.

Historic interest:

* as 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.


In the early 1980s J Sainsbury took ownership of a former industrial site in the heart of Camden with a view to developing an urban superstore. The scope of the project reached beyond just the store and between 1986 and 1988 a mixed-use scheme comprising a supermarket, a terrace of houses (1-12 Grand Union Walk, listed Grade II), a commercial building (known as Grand Union House) and a small crèche building were constructed to designs by Nicholas Grimshaw and Partners.

Situated to the south of the Grand Union Canal (originally Regent’s Canal), the site was in mixed industrial and residential use in the C19. During the C20 an increasingly large part was occupied by the Aerated Bread Company (ABC), which ceased production in 1982 leaving a roughly triangular site bounded on two sides by busy roads and on the third by the Grand Union Canal. In April 1985 Sainsbury’s obtained outline planning permission for a scheme by Scott Brownrigg and Turner. This, however, was rejected by Sainsbury’s newly-established vetting committee, chaired by the architecture critic Colin Amery. Amery was formerly assistant editor to the Architectural Review and architectural critic for the Financial Times; in his new role he reported directly to supermarket chairman, Sir John Sainsbury. Amery described the approved scheme as ‘not quite good enough’ for the site and in November 1985 the architects were replaced by Nicholas Grimshaw and Partners on his recommendation. Sainsbury’s also owned a plot north of the canal which was designated for a housing association development under a section 52 agreement in the outline planning permission of 1985. Although it formed part of the planning permission, it was not included in Grimshaw’s site.

Though opposed by the Regent’s Canal Conservation Advisory Group, the scheme Grimshaw devised for Sainsbury’s enthused Camden’s planners, who, as he recalled it, wanted a sophisticated modern building rather than a pastiche. Detailed planning permission was granted in May 1986, having been commended by the Royal Fine Art Commission as an ‘example of bold and enlightened patronage’. Construction commenced in August 1986, with Wimpey as main contractor.

Each of the elements had very different planning and servicing requirements, lifespans and tenure and all needed to be fitted together on the compact, inner-city site. Grimshaw’s scheme permitted each element to take its own form with the architectural design establishing continuity through a common palette of colours and materials. The location of the principal elements were dictated by the constraints and opportunities of the site: the supermarket occupies the main street frontage, the amenity of the canal is given over to the housing, and the vehicular entrances and first-floor commercial units assigned to the non-retail Kentish Town Road. A subterranean car park runs under most of the site.

Sainsbury’s brief focussed on the retail space and associated servicing needs. In terms of the building, the scope of the architect was limited to the structure, services and external envelope. Such a situation was compatible with the relatively indeterministic, flexible approach to interiors that Grimshaw’s earlier, industrial work demonstrates. The concept for the store was based on traditional market halls, expressed in the curved ceiling, use of natural light and exposed structure. On its completion the building received a warm critical reception for its demonstration that a supermarket can successfully be both a large, flexible retail space and a piece of high quality architecture. As an example of High-Tech it represents a maturation of the idiom, being both uncompromisingly modern and contextual.

Nicholas Grimshaw was born in 1939 in Hove. He studied architecture at the Edinburgh College of Art between 1959 and 62, and in 1962-65 at the Architectural Association. After graduating he established a practice with Terry Farrell, forming his own practice in 1980. Prior to the Camden scheme his portfolio was made up of light-weight, small or medium-scale projects on dispersed sites for industrial or leisure clients. Along with the Financial Times Printing Works (1987-8, Grade II*) and the Waterloo Eurostar terminus (commissioned 1988, built 1990-3), the Camden project therefore occupies a pivotal position in Grimshaw’s oeuvre. From the early 1990s Grimshaw came to popular attention with flagship projects such as the British Pavilion for the Seville Expo of 1992 for which he was awarded a CBE and the Grandstand to Lord’s Cricket Ground (1998). Grimshaw’s inclusion in the ‘British Architecture Today: Six Protagonists’ exhibition at the 1991 Venice Biennale heralded an international dimension to the practice which included the Berlin Stock Exchange (1997) and Bilbao Bus Station (1999). Grimshaw received a knighthood for services to architecture in 2002 and is the 2019 recipient of the RIBA Royal Gold Medal. He is considered one of the pioneers of High-Tech architecture, a movement strongly identified with Britain in the late C20.


Supermarket, 1986-88, to designs by Nicholas Grimshaw and Partners, architect in charge, Neven Sidor; structural engineers, Kenchington, Little and Partners.

Pursuant to s1 (5A) of the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990 ('the Act') it is declared that the car park and, with the exception of the curved ceiling over the shop floor, the interior fittings, fixtures and non-structural partitions within the shop and in all back-of-house areas are not of special architectural or historic interest, however any works which have the potential to affect the character of the listed building as a building of special architectural or historic interest may still require LBC and this is a matter for the LPA to determine.

MATERIALS: the building has a steel frame clad in glass and several types of pre-fabricated aluminium panel. Exposed elements of the frame are fireproofed in epoxy-based thick film intumescent coatings; this was said to be the first large-scale architectural application of this product developed for offshore and military applications.

PLAN: the building is roughly rectangular in plan with its street frontage facing south-east onto Camden Road. The tight urban site precluded the dispersed layout of ancillary accommodation afforded to typical ‘out-of-town’ supermarkets, hence Grimshaw’s solution of stacking some of these functions into first-floor strips running along the long edges of the structure. This gives a two-storey elevation to the street, and to the rear. Staff accommodation and plant rooms are in the Camden Road frontage, reached via a roof-top link from the back of the building. Beneath and between these two storey elements is the main shopping hall which is a single-height space; for this Sainsbury’s required a 43.2m clear span, about twice that of Grimshaw’s early sheds. To the rear of the building is an ancillary service block within an enclosed yard; goods lorries enter and exit the yard via two separate points of Kentish Town Road.

The store is entered via a single-storey vestibule to the west, with an open-sided, curved-roof top-lit court or atrium behind. The latter forms a through route from Camden Road to Kentish Town Road and to the rear is an enclosure which shelters a pair of travelators descending to a basement car park. Trollies are fitted with a locking device so they can be used on the travelators, a widely adopted technology now but innovative at the time (AR, 10.1989, p.36). The lower height of the entrance and atrium are in deference to the neighbouring Church of St Michael (listed Grade II*).

EXTERIOR: the exteriors are based on three elements: displayed structure, a glazed shopfront revealing the retail activity within, and the use of ‘present day materials' (AJ, 6.8.1986, p.33), primarily glass, steel and aluminium. Reacting against the blandness of the typical retail store, Grimshaw gave the store an assertive and characteristically urban presence whilst also managing to match the cornice line of the early C19 terrace opposite.

The need for tight planning and a large, deep-plan shop floor suggested the elaborate structure with outer cantilevers which Grimshaw devised. It can be most easily understood from the east side elevation which reveals the structure in section: arched roof trusses over the central shopping hall are bolted at each end to the underside of pairs of opposing cantilever girders. In turn the girders are anchored by vertical clusters of four tension rods which run down to steel shoes mounted on tall concrete plinths. Secondary cantilever girders above provide the roof trusses for the strips of first floor accommodation to the front and rear and these are anchored to the lower girder by a single tension rod.

The exposed structure breaks the long principal elevation onto Camden Road down into 11 boldly expressed bays (bay four, read left to right, is occupied by an external escape stair). The clusters of tension rods create an arcade-like effect, standing proud of the recessed shopfront which is glazed with deep, fin-like glazing bars. A pierced sheet steel balustrade runs between the concrete plinths of the tension rods, enclosing a basement area (bringing light and air into the car park). The first floor accommodation rises from the back edge of the girder, jettying out over the shopfront; this is clad in louvred panels (for the plant rooms) and ribbed aluminium panels with horizontal strips of glazing. The ribbed cladding panels are a development of those devised by Grimshaw for the Herman Miller factory at Chippenham. Between the top of shopfront and the underside of the first floor is a glazed void, spot-lit from within, allowing a view from Camden Road through to the curved shopping hall roof and exposing the length and depth of each of the girders.

The entrance vestibule and enclosure to the travelators have opposing mono-pitched roofs and are clad in aluminium panels. The atrium roof which spans between them in a shallow arc is a more intricate structure, formed a series of translucent barrel vaults supported on gently tapering steel columns.

Between the exposed structural members the north and east elevations are clad in aluminium panels.

INTERIOR: Grimshaw’s only notable contribution to the interior is the gentle curve of the ceiling, echoing the curve of the roof trusses. This simple intervention, inspired by traditional market halls, adds height and spatial interest to an otherwise standardised retail interior where the structure is not internally exposed.


Books and journals
Amery, C, Architecture, Industry and Innovation: the Early Work of Nicholas Grimshaw and Partners, (1995), pp. 189-211
Cherry, B, Pevsner, N, The Buildings of England. London 4: North, (2002), pp 389
Powell, K, World Cities: London, (1993), pp 248-249
'Superstore Solutions' in Architects' Journal, , Vol. 184, (30 July 1986), pp 29-36
Greenberg, S, Pawley, M, 'Market Leader' in Architects' Journal, , Vol. 190, (4 October 1989), pp 40-59
'Cladding and Roof' in Architects' Journal, , Vol. 190, (4 October 1989), pp 69-71
'Urban Grimshaw' in Architectural Review, , Vol. 186, (October 1989), pp 36-49
'Urban Encapsulation' in Architectural Record, (September 1989), pp 78-79
'Sainsbury takes critic's advice: Practice Sacked in Store Rethink' in Building Design, , Vol. 764, (15 November 1985), pp 1
'Chain Reaction' in Building Design, (8 August 1986), pp 10-11
'Structural Superstore' in Building Design, (3 February 1989), pp 26-27
'Sainsbury's sues over crack-up in Camden' in Building Design, , Vol. 1154, (3 December 1993), pp 1
'On a Wing and a Prayer' in Blueprint, (September 1989), pp 40-42
Pawley, M, 'Best of British' in The Guardian, (11 July 1989), pp 38
Pawley, M, 'The Chain Store Massacre' in The Guardian, (12 December 1988), pp 34


This building is listed under the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990 as amended for its special architectural or historic interest.

The listed building is shown coloured blue on the attached map. Pursuant to s1 (5A) of the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990 (‘the Act’) structures attached to or within the curtilage of the listed building but not coloured blue on the map, are not to be treated as part of the listed building for the purposes of the Act. However, any works to these structures which have the potential to affect the character of the listed building as a building of special architectural or historic interest may still require Listed Building Consent (LBC) and this is a matter for the Local Planning Authority (LPA) to determine.

End of official listing

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