Anatomy of a House No.5 Grand Union Walk, Camden Town 1990 Nicholas Grimshaw & Partners
Our first four editions of Anatomy of a House have covered International Modernism (High and Over, Willow Road), early Brutalism (Sugden House) and Romantic Pragmatism (62 Camden Mews). This time we shoot forward to the late 80s/early 90s and the era of High Tech and Postmodernism. Nicholas Grimshaw studied at the Architectural Association, mixing with Peter Cook, Cedric Price and John Winter. After leaving he went into practice with Terry Farrell, designing houses, apartments and factories. One of their most notable designs was 125 Park Road, an apartment block overlooking Regents Park with flexibly planned interiors and an aluminium-clad facade, now Grade II listed. The partners went their separate ways in 1980, Farrell producing more postmodernist designs, with Grimshaw sticking to the High Tech path.
125 Park Road by Farrell/Grimshaw Partnership. Image from Grimshaw Architects.
The supermarket company J. Sainsbury acquired a stretch of industrial land next to the Grand Union Canal in Camden Town at the start of the 1980s, which they wanted to develop into a large superstore. Part of the site was occupied by the 1930s Aerated Bread Company factory, which had ceased prosecution in 1982. Sainsbury’s initially awarded the scheme to Scott Brownrigg and Turner, before the decision was reversed by its newly established planning committee, headed by architectural critic Colin Avery. The project was given to Nicholas Grimshaw and Partners in November 1985, with planning permission granted for the whole scheme in May 1986.
Sainsbury's Superstore, Camden Town by Nicholas Grimshaw. Image from Grimshaw Architects.
Camden council originally stipulated that the housing should take the form of flats, but Grimshaw thought the site better suited to a terrace of 10 houses with 1 maisonette and 1 bedsit flat. The houses face north, overlooking the canal, with their entrance via a private walkway on the canalside. The facade on the supermarket side has no windows, which meant there would be no natural light for most of the day in the houses. To alleviate this, Grimshaw made the north facing windows double height and added circular top lights to the roofs. The houses are constructed of concrete blockwork and precast concrete floors. The canalside exteriors have curved aluminium walls, reminiscent of an aeroplane fuselage, with lozenge shaped windows.
Isometric Drawing of a section of the Grand Union Walk terrace.
Inside, the double height vertical windows let light into an open plan living space on the first floor which opens onto a balcony. The windows feature electrically controlled aluminium blinds allowing residents privacy and shade. There are bedrooms on the second floor and the ground floor, which also features a utility room. The kitchen is situated on the first floor at the rear of the open plan living space with a lounge overlooking the canal. The interior is finished in white render, with beech wood used for the doors, stairs and floor. Roof terraces were added to the houses in 2006.
The Living Room of the Grand Union Walk Houses
The houses were a success, garnering critical praise from architecture critic Martin Pawley, who called them “houses of a new age”, and selling quickly. The owners of the new houses were given instruction manuals, detailing how to use the various high tech features and where to find qualified servicers and suppliers. In 2018 the developer Sellar submitted an application to demolish part of the wider complex (not the houses) and build a four storey block of flats for affordable housing. The 20th Century Society submitted an application for listing for the whole Grimshaw-designed site in early 2019. Historic England listed the supermarket and the Grand Union houses at Grade II in July, They did not list the offices, workshops or creche part of the scheme, leaving them open to redevelopment in the future. However, the prospects of the houses seem to be assured with their listing and general popularity, hopefully they will remain as they are, a slice of unexpected futurism on the canalside.
Colin Rowe- Architecture, Industry and Innovation: v2: Work of Nicholas Grimshaw & Partners 1965-88 Historic England Listing