When it opened in September 1999, Sainsbury's on the Greenwich peninsula was toasted as the new sustainable face of retailing. This was no big dull shed, this was a low-slung beauty whose construction aimed to maximise energy efficiency. The roof featured north-facing ribbed windows to let in daylight, based on the same natural illumination philosophy used by art galleries. The sides were flanked with earth to provide insulation in winter and ventilation in summer. The delivery area was shielded by trees and gabion walls to minimise the noise of unloading for residents of the neighbouring Millennium Village. They even invited Jamie Oliver to open it, back when he was the Naked Chef and not some jolly bloating celeb. This was Sainsbury's flagship store, and it was even suggested that one day all supermarkets might be built this way. But they weren't, the big dull shed model still predominates, and in ten days' time it officially wins the war.
The building's roof is integral to the design. It is composed of aluminium standing-seam sheets draped over the curved building form. In the exposed location of Greenwich Peninsula, this reduction in wind resistance is especially relevant. The earth mounding which is used to shelter the side elevations further smooths the building form. The glazed panel at the front of the building is flanked on both sides by vertical strips of untreated American white oak cladding. The objective is to soften the entrance.
Supermarkets are typically deep plan containers. Key to the building design for Sainsbury's at Greenwich Peninsula is extensive use of natural lighting within the deep plan building. This serves two of the brief's agenda. The ambience of the resultant space is more natural and conversely less artificial. The difference is most noticeable during the day when the background lighting is turned off, and artificial lighting is restricted to product display close to the merchandising shelves.
I like shopping at Sainsbury's North Greenwich. Stepping through the entrance leads into an unexpectedly open space, and the natural light gives the place a uncharacteristically pleasant air. The store's not so small that it has barely anything in stock, like a bleak Sainsbury's Local, but nor is it so enormous that walking from the milk to the bread takes an age. Everything's stacked off one central aisle, for straightforward navigation, keeping the whole shopping experience the right side of manageable. To me the whole building feels more airport terminal than superstore, its staff somehow more glamorous than the usual checkout drones, in an atmosphere that retains an intangible element of cool. I'm wrong, alas. [7 photos]
It took Sainsbury's management barely ten years to decide they wanted to move on. The Greenwich peninsula retail park grew more popular than they'd imagined, clogging the aisles more than architects had planned. Online grocery shopping took off, meaning customers expect a wider range of products so prefer to shop from home. And there wasn't enough room for an in-store bakery, or fishmonger, or for racks of clothes, which meant that profits in North Greenwich weren't as high as they could have been. So they identified a larger site up the road, on the Charlton borders between Sports Direct and Makro, and built themselves a replacement supermarket there. That finally opens its doors on Wednesday June 24th, which means your last chance to shop at the 'old' new Sainsbury's is by 6pm on Tuesday 23rd.
A spokesman for Sainsbury’s said: “The old Sainsbury’s store garnered national interest and praise for its sustainable design. However, after almost 15 years of operation, sustainable technologies have moved on. We are relocating our Greenwich store to a bigger site so that we can offer our customers the full Sainsbury’s range. Our new store, which has already successfully gained planning permission, will be fully fitted with modern sustainable technologies.”
I've read the blurb to see what 'modern sustainable technologies' actually means. It means solar panels rather than natural daylight. It means rainwater harvesting rather than drawing water from an underground aquifer. It means electrical vehicle charging points in a new car park rather than a woodland nature trail out the back. And it means a Bee Hotel, not because this epitomises sustainability but because a few cheap bits of holey wood look good in a greenwash press release. In truth the new building is three times bigger than the old solely for reasons of economics, and Sainsbury's environmental legacy is being essentially trashed.
A clause inserted in the lease before departure ensures that North Greenwich's next tenant will be a non-food retailer. Indeed it's highly likely that what'll appear next is Inner London's first IKEA. It only has outline planning permission at present, so it'll be a while before you can drop in to buy tealights, a kitchen table or a flatpack bed. But its construction will commence with the demolition of the entire existing Sainsbury's site, because English Heritage failed to get the building listed earlier in the year. And in a further snub to sustainability what's almost certain to follow is an increase in traffic hereabouts, as a shop you leave with plastic bags is replaced by a warehouse that requires you to bring your car.
I did my shopping in the decade-and-a-half-old supermarket yesterday. I found everything I wanted, and snapped a few photos for posterity when nobody was really looking. The girl on the till didn't seem overly upset that the store was closing, and reassured me that the new place wouldn't be too far away. But for me it'll be two buses from home rather than one, so instantly off-limits, plus I'm not expecting it to have any atmosphere that'd encourage me to travel miles. It's a shame that economic reality has caught up with brave millennial dreams, but such are the priorities of modern life. And it's ironic that a building which was supposed to be an architectural gamechanger is to be replaced... by a big dull shed.