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William Mann: 'Astley Castle has already opened doors for us'

The AJ talks to William Mann about what Astley Castle’s Stirling Prize victory means for the profession and for his practice Witherford Watson Mann

How would you describe the reaction to your victory?
Overwhelming. The number of people who voted in the public polls or have posted comments on the internet – it seems to have caught the public’s imagination. And it seems to have touched a nerve professionally, too.

The judges’ citation captures (see bottom) very beautifully what the project stands for, and we’ve been buoyed up by the number of messages from architects who share those values.

Will the victory open doors to more of this kind of work and, indeed, do you want it?
Do we want to become international castle specialists? Not really. But, to be honest, the project has already opened doors for us. People have clearly been able to see that this isn’t just about ancient history. Our work at the castle is about taking the world as we find it, embracing the leftovers of the past because they have both material and social value, and a deep structure that remains valid for the future.

We’ve started to learn what can and can’t be transferred across scales and cultures. Astley is a project whose value is beneath the surface. To get a comparable result, you have to be open to a fairly challenging journey. Organisations that have a strong sense of their own values, and a willingness to re-examine the way they do things, can get a lot of value from this approach. These are the kind of people we’ve done our best work for, and with whom we’re keen to work.

Is there anything you’d have done differently at Astley Castle?
Our idea at competition stage was to build the roof first, then repair and build up the house under this stable and weathered enclosure. It happened differently because of funding processes. But the idea of a provisional intervention that unlocks further stages of work is very appealing.

Do we want to become international castle specialists? Not really

Many have said it creates a new exemplar in how to rework old buildings. Do you agree?
Maybe, but it’s all relative. The approach we’ve taken isn’t so different to that taken by Döllgast, Albini, Grassi, Lutyens even, so clearly it’s not new. But it’s not a common one, and the ‘full contact’ engagement with historic fabric is very different from the prevailing practice in Britain, so it demonstrates that there is another way.

We were dealing with a ruin – so the lessons for buildings that are largely intact will inevitably be more limited. But this kind of interpretive transformation is very relevant for the urban scale, where you get complex accumulations – that’s what we’ve been trying to work with on the Olympic Legacy Masterplan and at the Elephant and Castle.

How did you find the Stirling Prize judging experience?
The judging is a bit like a crit with some of the best minds in and around architecture – it forces you into a very intense reflection on what you’ve done.

And that’s one of the hidden benefits of making it to the Stirling shortlist. The judges were very quick to sniff out what was at stake, and came at us from lots of different angles: from Tom Dyckhoff wanting to know ‘How has this project changed the Landmark Trust?’ to Sheila O’Donnell asking ‘How is this different to designing a private house?’

To answer O’Donnell - it’s more open: since it doesn’t express anyone’s personality, each group of guests can figure out how they want to live in it…but it’s also more collective: the first floor gathers together several more intimate spaces into a single big hall - so it supports the sociability of friends or family away together for a few days.

Following your win is there any advice you’d give to other practices, especially the ‘next generation’?
Advice? We wouldn’t presume. The next generation? There are huge questions around the social and environmental value of our existing building stock, which I hope we can all get our teeth into, as a profession.

Do you mind that you didn’t win £20,000 like all those before you?
It’s a sign of the recessionary times, I suppose – but then so is the patient, thoughtful nature of the shortlisted schemes, a definite quality of the 2013 award.

The judges citation for the RIBA Stirling Prize winner:

The challenge of how to be resolutely of this age while simultaneously embracing the past is one of the most complex problems that architects have had to face throughout architectural history. It is also one that, over the past two centuries, has perhaps caused the most argument. Astley Castle resolves that argument with beauty, intelligence and a rigour that runs through to the smallest of details. There is, of course, great romance to a ruined castle.

This, however, can be as much hindrance as help to the architect seeking to give this ruin a future, a highly pragmatic one at that, as a holiday home. Witherford Watson Mann has managed at once to respect the past, to be gentle in its relationship, while simultaneously not being afraid to make its architectural presence felt, and with some force. It has dealt with Astley’s ruins with intelligence and practicality, while adding to them with a contemporary architecture that is rich, visually beautiful and tactile. The architects have responded intuitively to the site, working with the client throughout the process on a voyage of discovery, to give the castle its new form. The result darns together not only the present and the past, but the head and the heart with a complexity and deftness that is only truly appreciated when within the building itself. This is a building that constantly reveals itself both inside and out. For this we have to thank the client as well as the architect, a client willing to be extremely ambitious in its commissioning. In the end, all great architecture comes down to a conversation, between client and architect, between history and the present.

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