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Astley Castle's Stirling Prize win hailed as an ‘important precedent’ for historic buildings

Witherford Watson Mann’s contemporary intervention into the historic fabric of a 12th-century ruin is seen as signalling a radical new approach to heritage architecture, writes Richard Waite

Witherford Watson Mann’s 2013 RIBA Stirling Prize-winning Astley Castle revamp has been heralded as ‘a change in how the UK treats and makes use of historic buildings’.

The £1.35 million conversion of the ruined 12th-century Warwickshire castle into a holiday home for the Landmark Trust was chosen for the most prestigious accolade in UK architecture ahead of five other contenders, including the bookmakers’ favourite, Niall McLaughlin’s Bishop Edward King Chapel, and the well-backed overhaul of Sheffield’s Park Hill estate.

AJ deputy editor Rory Olcayto said the design offered ‘a stylish new template’ for reworking historic buildings and showed that ‘our appreciation of the built environment was being reconsidered wholesale’.

Alison Brooks, of 2008 Stirling Prize victor Alison Brooks Architects, said: ‘Astley Castle sets an important precedent for historic architecture and how existing buildings can be reinvented and reinvigorated. It is radical in the world of preservation.’

RIBA president Stephen Hodder, who led the judging panel, said the jury had spent five hours in ‘animated debate’ deliberating the decision. It later emerged the choice had not been unanimous. However, Hodder maintained the ‘extreme retrofit’ was an ‘exceptional example of how modern architecture can revive an ancient monument’ and sent out a strong message about ‘how to engage with existing buildings’.   

Anna Keay, the director of the Landmark Trust and the client behind the Astley Castle project, said it had already ‘captured the public imagination in a way that we never anticipated’.

Keay also insisted that the £4,386/m² project was ‘democratic’, despite its having been described (by FT architecture critic Edwin Heathcote, AJ 20.09.13) as a ‘posh guest house’. She said: ‘Astley Castle isn’t out of reach for anyone. You can see the building tomorrow or on any day of the week by walking the public trail through the grounds, which we opened as part of the project.

‘The whole building inside and out is open, free, on our regular Open Days, to which we have had many thousands of visitors already. Anyone can book a stay and our prices start at £22 per person per night, which is cheaper than many youth hostels.

She added: ‘It is also democratic in the sense of being funded entirely by donations from individuals and bodies, including magnificent support from the Heritage Lottery Fund.’ 

Keay, who described the scheme as ‘a labour of love’, said it could pave the way for a similar ‘bold contemporary intervention’ on future projects ‘where the circumstances [were] right.’

Unfortunately for Witherford Watson Mann – the London-based practice named among the bright young guns in the AJ’s 40 Under 40 in 2007 – there was no £20,000 prize money. It was the first time since the prize was launched in 1996 that the victors did not come away with a large cheque. 

Simon Allford of AHMM said: ‘Of course it is disappointing that the symbolically important prize money has fallen away. The executive should focus on seeking the prize money, as they manage to in Scotland, rather than presenting the prizes.’

But former RIBA president Paul Hyett of HKS said: ‘The RIBA should permanently abandon the awarding of prize money. Stirling’s prestige is enough: As evidenced by this excitement, the cash is a belittling distraction. [The RIBA’s] sponsors’ generous support can be better utilised elsewhere.’

Comments

Tom Dyckhoff, journalist and Stirling Prize judge

‘The decision wasn’t unanimous. We don’t think about messages a decision sends out when we choose our winner. But it is coming up to 30 years since Prince Charles’ “monstrous carbuncle” speech, which has been hanging over architects for a long time. [Astley Castle] goes beyond that crap and shows you can deal with listed buildings in a robust and contemporary way.’

Ed Vaizey, architecture minister

‘It is wonderful to see this marriage between heritage and modern architecture. It does send out a message – the artificial divide between heritage and modern is breaking down. The Stirling Prize is a showcase and British architecture is a quality mark – it is an international calling card.’

Sheila O’Donnell of O’Donnell + Tuomey, Stirling Prize judge

‘It was very close between two projects. Astley Castle is brave. It is about how you can work in and up against the historic building fabric. And about how you can give future generations a chance to enjoy these buildings. It was the quality of the detailing that really stood out for this project. I enjoyed the parts which they had left old and the parts which they had left open. It is very original thinking.’

Joe Morris of Duggan Morris, Manser Medal judge

‘I was blown away by the detail. There were certain deficiencies of the building as a house and the lower element is not as good as the upper. But in terms of engaging contemporary architecture with a monument it is very good. WWM are incredibly gifted, smart people.’

Meredith Bowles of Mole Architects

‘The castle is a radical departure from what is normally done with historic projects. It has been done a bit before but we have forgotten about it and this Stirling Prize win brings it back to our attention. They have thought about every detail.’

Alan Stanton of Stanton Williams

‘The Astley Castle win shows that the Stirling Prize is back to form – architecture is over as a glossy image. You actually have to go and see stuff. Stanton Williams entered the original contest for the Astley Castle refurb – but we have the greatest respect for what Witherford Watson Mann have done. This Stirling Prize win has confirmed that they are going to become an important practice.’

Hellman AJ Astley Castle cartoon

Hellman’s take on the 2013 Stirling Prize win

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