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An ode to a supermarket - perfection and reality in one

Getting down to work with a set of art historical tools on the unexploded bomb of architecture is the miracle regularly performed by the architectural critic. Never mind that the architecture regularly turns out to be the politics of development in disguise. Compared with building, criticism may be as futile as trying to make your car go faster with a whip, but it has the force of tradition behind it.

Unlike the realities of practice, criticism convinces us that new buildings are something more than thin films stretched around serviced floorspace. It encourages us to believe that buildings really are works of art.

Deep in their hearts, practicing architects know the falseness of this proposition. They know that all new buildings are really only bits of their own and other people's ideas, the flotsam of plagiarism, the work of unsung assistants or engineers, the result of outside interference, prejudice, bureaucracy, money, time and wayward subcontractors. But when they embark upon criticism themselves they forget it all and take to literary licence like a middle-aged man to a steaming bath. Criticism is a world where every opinion has a function. Criticism is closely related to publicity. Criticism is second cousin to that great post-industrial activity 'raising awareness'.

This level of realism is essential for the proper defence of the design of an S-reg supermarket presently subtly doubling its size on the outskirts of a country town. Without it we might fall into the trap of imagining that the store, car park and petrol station complex (together with a drop of Section 52 to pacify the natives and signs of coming B1), is a failed attempt at a Roman Forum, or a botched Somerset satellite town. And if we did that we would start using words like 'civitas' and 'piazza' and giving free play to our nostalgic preference for the 'corner shop', the sawdust-floored village pub, the Smithy and worse.

This supermarket deserves none of these associations. It is a pure product of material culture, the kind of place in whose floor-to-ceiling glazed cafe you might find film-maker Patrick Keiller debriefing the enigmatic Robinson on a housing estate he has just reconnoitred. This supermarket is so good it concentrates rather than dissipates the elements of late twentieth century life. Here, cheek by jowl, are owner speculator houses, acres of food retailing space, car parking and, coming along nicely now, a nest of offices. If we really want to understand this place we must absolutely not pretend that it has anything to do with capturing the whole of eternity in an afternoon, or flinging a pot of paint in the public's face. We must accept that it is not art and it pleases everybody from the retailer to the planner to that reach-me-down fellow, the man in the street.

In the real world where this orderly complex was conceived, food retailing and car parking are machine processes, codified and optimised by regulation and commercial experience. Site utilisation for nearby houses and business premises too is programmed by regulations and a computer-monitored market.

For these reasons this supermarket, located where an A-road joins a speed-limited urban area, is as near perfect as the late twentieth century could make it.

But out of its perfection comes forth weakness.

As surreal in its way as the encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on a dissecting table is the sight of a forlorn cluster of cars motionless around the service station, which is decorated with crudely painted signs saying 'No Petrol', 'Tanks Empty' and 'Closed'. The car park is unnaturally empty. A bus is slowly filling from a long queue of would-be passengers carrying clusters of plastic bags or cardboard boxes.

In 2000 perfection reached its limits.

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