The Foss Bank Sainsbury’s may not be what initially comes to mind when considering the importance of York’s 20th-century architecture, but this building has a lot to say in showcasing the uber-trendy High-Tech style (not seen elsewhere in the city), itself part of the supermarket chain’s rich tradition of architectural innovation. Completed in 1984 and designed in-house, the Foss Bank Sainsbury’s is positioned on the land between Monkgate, Foss Bank and Jewbury. The site became available after the construction of the new general hospital in Wigginton Road, making way for the demolition of the County Hospital and neighbouring gasworks previously situated on the site. There were many proposals put forward, including for a leisure centre, but it was Sainsbury’s who acquired the permission for the building of this supermarket, as well as an adjacent customer car park and a replacement local authority car park. A Homebase store, which was part of the Sainsbury’s group until 2016, was built contemporaneously next door. Prior to building work on the site, contractors were brought in to decontaminate the old gas works, and a medieval burial site was discovered. This then necessitated the involvement of the York Archaeological Trust, who carried out careful exhumation of the remains, which were then moved to the Jewsbury end of the site, and a plaque was installed.1
The site is elevated above ground level so that it cannot be seen clearly from the road where the access routes lie. The obscured site – outside of the City walls – perhaps permitted an uncompromisingly modern design. Developed during the late 1960s from British Modernist architecture, High-Tech emphasises engineering and construction and is characterised by its lightweight materials, angular forms, and exposed structures. Norman Foster and Richard Rogers pioneered High-Tech in the 1970s – appropriately, Foster’s Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts at the University of East Anglia, Norwich (1978) is a famous, statutorily listed example.2 The York supermarket was well received in the architectural press, and even enjoyed the cachet of inclusion on the cover of the Yorkshire Architect, the journal of the Yorkshire Region of the Royal Institute of British Architects.
The Foss Bank Sainsbury’s is characterised by the exposed structural frame, originally painted yellow but now in black, which extends from the main structure, creating a cantilevered glass canopy around the façade. The entire exterior was covered in mirrored glass cladding, which remains today, with the entrance in transparent glass allowing for a view into the interior. However, this former glass entrance has now been obscured with advertising, severing the relationship between the interior and exterior of the building, creating a less inviting shopping experience. The High-Tech elements of the building reflect the site’s previous purpose as a gasworks, with the structural frame echoing the industrial aesthetic. The framework could be deemed unsightly, appearing almost as scaffolding that was left standing but there are hints of Rogers in the building too, such as his Pompidou Centre in Paris, which feels familiar when comparing the framework to a skeleton, holding the inner structure together.
The shape of the adjoining car park, built to free up the inner city, is harmonised with the city walls and road with a curved, and highly detailed, brick exterior and free-flow layout within. Originally much more of the exterior was exposed, but now the side elevation along Jewbury is lined with large trees and no longer has parking spaces along its perimeter due to the widening of the road. The distinctive arched openings along the side are now fitted with railings and much of the car park is covered with foliage, the architecture becoming hidden. Perhaps due to the car park’s close proximity to the historic City walls, a High-Tech style was not suitable, hence the decision for a simple brick exterior. The Esher report published in 1969, advocated for pushing larger commercial businesses of this kind outside of the confines of the city walls.3 Similarly, in Colin Buchanan’s Traffic in Towns (1963), better known as the Buchanan Report, and which was hugely influential UK-wide, there is an emphasis on protecting the integrity of historic centres, directing the traffic to these out-of-town shopping experiences.4
York is not the only city to showcase some of the, perhaps surprising, architectural richness that comes from the Sainsbury’s supermarket portfolio, with styles ranging from Neo-Vernacular to High-Tech. However, many of these commercial buildings are under threat from demolition, and sadly several have already been demolished. Ian Pollard’s Egyptian Revival Post-Modern Homebase store in Kensington (1988-90) was demolished in 2014, hieroglyphics and all, to make way for (you guessed it) luxury flats.5 Paul Hinkin’s eco-millennium Sainsbury’s store in Greenwich (1999) stood until 2016, with the end of its lifespan met with an unsuccessful campaign by the Twentieth Century Society for the building to be listed.6 Nicholas Grimshaw’s Homebase store in Brentford (1987), with similar suspended framework to York’s Sainsbury’s, is now awaiting confirmation of its fate.7 Looking at esteemed architects like these can ultimately help to shift our outlook and understanding of the possibilities of supermarket architecture as well as showcasing the variety of building styles within the Sainsbury estate.
We should pay attention to these seemingly everyday structures, an unsung building type that merits architectural curiosity, in line with a growing historiography on retail architecture (seminally Kathryn Morrison’s English Shops and Shopping: an Architectural History (2004)), and mindful of the imminent threats facing retail buildings across the country. This supermarket in particular offers material testimony of the city’s commercial prosperity and is representative of an intriguing history of post-war consumerism, as well as offering insights into the city’s challenges of growth and change. It also has architectural richness in its own right.
I would like to say thank you to the Sainsbury Archive at the Museum of London Docklands for all the archival images in this article. Their website is an invaluable source for material on the Sainsbury company and I encourage you to explore more.