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Stirling shortlist: Astley Castle by Witherford Watson Mann

‘It feels like the English have finally found an architect able to work with history without having to panic about modernity,’ writes Edwin Heathcote

For decades there were things going on in Portuguese pousadas and Spanish monasteries, extraordinary hybrids of restoration, rebuilding and re-imagination. Buildings left derelict, often for centuries, were turned into ascetic but seductively elegant hotels and monastic hostels, with that seemingly effortless thoughtfulness and skill in handling the past that seems to come from being from around the Mediterranean. At the same time in Britain, over, say, the last three decades, whenever architects built beside an ancient structure they were obsessed with the ‘juxtaposition’ of old and new. Steel and glass, High-Tech over-detailing, tensile roofs and fussy timber details were piled on top of each other as if in justification of some SPAB-ey credo of never, ever allowing any possibility of confusion between what might have already been there, and what was from our own age.

Finally, a British practice with enough of that continental sophistication has been given a go and has come up with a building that I don’t think will win the prize (posh guest house - too fey) - but I would be delighted if it did.

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Witherford Watson Mann’s intervention into Astley Castle, an imposing ruin of a once-fortified stately home in the Midlands, is dense, intelligent, careful and magical. There are few acrobatics and instead the architect has carved out a series of striking, heavily grained spaces contained within gnarled surfaces which are left imbued with a rich sense of history and decay. In parts it is as much geology as it is archaeology or architecture, an exploration of the layers of material culture and texture.

The outdoor dining room - its roof missing, the huge fireplace in one wall and the rotting shutters hanging precariously off the now purely scenic windows - is as evocative and theatrical a space as you could find in contemporary British architecture, a surreal moment recalling the roof terrace of Corb’s apartment for Charles de Beistegui. Windows set in behind the weathered stone tracery of the originals also give a curiously surreal effect, a double framing or a kind of surveying of the landscape, as if using the building as a tool for looking. Big new windows are staggered so the single straight line doesn’t jar with the irregularity of the original fabric.

The contemporary interventions are understated but very, very fine. The timber stair looks like it’s been stripped down, as if the lath and plaster had been removed, its skeleton puncturing the floor above while a delicate handrail snakes up to guide the hand.

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Occasionally you see a building where the architect has had to make so many individual decisions about what to leave, what to restore, what to cover, what to start again, that it becomes almost dizzying to contemplate. Witherford Watson Mann’s experience of bonding the old library to the Whitechapel Gallery, a building seeped in history and meaning, with Belgian architect Robbrecht and Daem, has obviously served them well. They have made the right decision at every step and this is a rare building I can’t find real fault with. It feels like a moment when the English have finally found an architect able to work with history without having to panic about modernity, without having to ensure that every gesture is fanatically demarcated. At points, the work is quite ordinary, in the best possible way, crafted but unselfconscious and robust.

It is interesting to see Astley Castle up against Park Hill (arguably the two most interesting schemes here) because both are, in their way, adaptations of buildings on a medieval scale - fortified housing. Astley Castle’s chances may be impeded by its rather bourgeois Landmark Trust status, while Park Hill is impeded by the whiff of gentrification. I don’t think either will win but I’m very glad to see them both acknowledged. We already have plenty of buildings, they just need to be reused.

Edwin Heathcote is architecture and design critic of the Financial Times

Read Joseph Rykwert’s building study (AJ 05.07.12)

Q+A

William Mann, director, Witherford Watson Mann

What was your initial design concept?

In our competition proposal, we put the new house in the oldest part - the 12th-century core the house grew around. We felt the living space should be on the first floor, to enjoy views of the surrounding landscape: ancient and very beautiful. We proposed to keep the 15th- and 17th-century rooms around the core as open courtyards. So the idea was for an upside-down, inside-out house. The relationship of new and old wasn’t at arm’s length - it was full contact. The new house would hold the ruin together, like a brick and concrete armature.

Did the executed project differ from this initial concept?

When I see how close the end result is to our original idea, I sometimes wonder what we spent five years doing! We filled files with sketches, modelled all sorts of options and argued at length about small details. The changes are small but significant: the first-floor hall is more of a room, less a glazed-in ruin; the concrete bears on a brick edging, never the stone wall; the stair was in the corner, above the old stair tower - and we moved it into the centre of the house, where it divides the living room into overlapping territories. We originally proposed demolishing 15th-century walling - until we realised what it was…

What was the most challenging aspect of the project, and why?

It was all challenging - never straightforward: eight centuries of different types of construction, and several states of decay and collapse. From first to last, strategy and detail were inseparable.

What is the most important lesson you have taken from this project?

We were taken aback at how emotional people’s response has been. Unexpectedly, it’s been a big hit locally - I suppose because everyone remembers coming there when it was a hotel, after the war. It’s harder work than clearing everything away and starting afresh, but it’s worth doing, however awkward - because that’s our most direct way of engaging the collective imagination.

Where does this building sit within the practice’s evolution?

In our 11 years in practice we’ve spent much more time working on broken bits of city than on heritage. Astley draws on what we’ve learnt in less precious situations about durability, change and economical construction. It also draws on our experience at the Whitechapel Gallery, of how you intervene and make new construction responsive and coherent.

Having started with some quite big, complex projects which were collaborations, this is one of a series of smaller projects done on our own, which show our ideas on public space, housing and public buildings. We’re now working on a new generation of projects - so I guess it’s back to our starting concerns, but with more confidence in the underlying ideas, and more skills to deliver them.

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