Sainsbury’s is victim of its own success

The decision to demolish the ‘green’ Sainsbury’s store in Greenwich, east London is both disturbing and fascinating. This award-winning building by Chetwood Associates has reached the end of its usable life just 14 years after completion, not through any fault of the architect or architecture but because it is now too small for Sainsbury’s and not suitable for use by the new tenant IKEA.

IKEA has pledged to use as much of the demolition material as possible, but one can be sceptical about how significant that can be, given how formulaic IKEA stores are. A little hardcore perhaps? Twenty years ago, we would probably have seen the demolition of this store as part of the cycle of replacement and renewal. Although it won prizes, deservedly, it is not amongst the most stunningly beautiful buildings and will probably not be greatly missed apart from by those who enjoyed shopping there. If it had hung on another 16 years of course, it would have been eligible for listing, in recognition of its unusual typology – but that will not happen now. What has changed in the past 20 years, and most particularly in the last five, is a concern with embodied energy.

As buildings become more energy efficient in use, so the significance of that grows. Throwing away a building, even with a little bit of token recycling, is just so wasteful. The irony is that it may be the very elements that made this building so striking that hastened its demise. An anonymous, modular box is easily extended or adapted, but the Greenwich Sainsbury’s had character which is both laudable and difficult to adapt. Let’s hope that the lesson learnt is not that we should revert to an unending diet of the bad-neighbour boxes that blight so many of our high streets and out of town areas.

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