Reinventing The Supermarket As A Terraced Retreat

Amsterdam-based NL Architects transform an unlovable building typology–the supermarket box–into a green oasis.

The supermarket may be a marvel of social engineering, a highly calibrated machine designed to fulfill our gustatory desires–at the expense of our wallets–but it’s a stretch to call it architecture. Why? Because supermarkets lack the ambition to rise beyond their basic function.


NL Architects aims to change that. Their proposal for a supermarket in Sanya, China, is ambitious and perhaps a little zany. The original brief called for a simple shopping structure on a triangular plot adjacent to a row of residential slabs. What could have been a banal box with an “unattractive interface” was morphed into a glassy addition with a lushly planted roofscape.

After studying the site in Sanya, a popular resort in southern China, the Amsterdam-based architects developed a scheme that flipped the brief on its head, so to speak. They chose to sink the supermarket below-ground, replacing it with a glass pavilion at street level that would be covered by a giant, stepped roof garden. The multi-level design would accommodate more practical uses–the grocery store sits a story underground, above parking and deliveries–while leaving the ground-level open for the architect’s more formal intervention. “By placing the grocery underground, we could separate the building from the main structure and create a small pavilion as the entrance and include additional retail,” the architects tell Co.Design, to “increase permeability on the street.”

Above grade, a large cafe pavilion with shops fronting the street connects the structure to the surrounding residential buildings. The generous, cascading rooftop landscape establishes the complex as a visual icon and as a “lively” gateway to the resort.

The roof is not some site-specific eureka moment but a development of similar “mashup” experiments that go back nearly a decade in NL’s history. The architects explain: “Often the potential of the roofscape is underestimated or neglected.” Last year, NL Architects revealed plans for a glass cafe pavilion (also in China) covered with a bike velodrome; in March they released three different proposals for a pool house in Florida, each of which, in earnest, placed a large pool (or series of pools) on top of a very thin residential structure. (They provided few details on how the structure would support thousands of gallons of water overhead.) One of those designs, in fact, seems repurposed for the Sanya project–but in lieu of stepped, overflowing pools, there is now a “seemingly natural rice paddy-like valley.”

NL hopes that the roofscape will be a visual respite for neighboring apartments when the structure is completed in 2014. They also hope to work with local gardeners to create and maintain the spectacular micro-landscape throughout the year.

About the author

Sammy is a writer, designer, and ice cream maker based in New York. He once lived in China before being an editor at Architizer.