During conversations with other Brighton residents the subject of ‘where do you live’ often necessitates the use of ‘The Big Sainsburys’ as a reference point – ‘just down the road from The Big Sainsburys’, ‘about fifteen minutes walk from The Big Sainsburys’, etc. etc. Surprisingly for something constructed to house an explicitly bland supermarket, it is a striking building, rising in a panoptic fashion above the unassuming mid-to-late-19th-Century terraced houses that surround it. Its massive red brick facade and uncompromising rectangular bulk present a silent, subtle solidity, similar to the great stone walls of a Norman castle presenting themselves aggressively to any potential invaders. It is, if nothing else, a building meant to make you look.
Prior to 1976, the site on which the Sainsburys building now stands was taken up by a large railway viaduct, very similar to the railway viaduct cutting across the Lewes Road heading through Moulsecoomb, which still stands.
This viaduct was part of the Kemp Town Railway (1869-1971), a small railway line which ran from London Road, where it peeled off from the main line, to a station in Kemp Town, now Freshfield Industrial Park. Its legacy is still visible in Brighton; the buildings that stand where the viaduct ran are noticeably modern amongst a sea of Victorian architecture and the blocked-up entrances to its tunnel are still visible and, on rare occasions, accessible.
Built only nine years after the viaduct’s demolition in 1985, The Big Sainsburys draws heavily upon the architectural motifs of its geographical predecessor, supposedly in an attempt to incorporate it architecturally into its surroundings. In the same way that the huge curved arches of Victorian railway viaducts were built to call to mind the majesty of the Roman viaducts as feats of engineering (a particularly striking example of this is the Balcombe Viaduct in West Sussex), so The Big Sainsburys, in its use of a series of large blind arches on its facade, calls to mind this calling-to-mind. This is a principle which pervades the whole building: its arched arcade of red brick pillars calling to mind the arcades of solemn Doric columns so often found in neoclassical architecture which itself is supposed to refer back to the ostensible strength and order of the Roman Empire, while the dormer windows on its faux-mansard roof imitate the ostentatious display of wealth of a Georgian manor house. And of course, like so many buildings which aim to display authority, it boasts a clock positioned on its front. The measurement of time, the ultimate human imposition of order onto chaos, must have pride of place.
The Big Sainsburys might, then, be said to be a deliberate display of ‘stateliness’ and corporate power under the guise of ‘assimilating with the area’. It is a building embedded with references to permanence and order which are so far removed from their source that the majority of people observing it would not be able to place them. It is, in other words, a deliberate simulacrum of the imposition of authority.