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Manser Medal shortlist: Astley Castle by Witherford Watson Mann

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Astley Castle, Nuneaton by Witherford Watson Mann. Photography by Philip Vile, Helene Binet and Philippe Ebeling

At Astley Castle, we started with a ruin. In places it seemed no more than a pile of stones; in others it was a ruin in the grand tradition. After eight centuries of continuous habitation, a fire had burned off its roofs, and three decades of freeze-thaw humbled its walls. Time the destroyer was a good architect, bringing light and creating long views out.

We haven’t restored it, nor left it as a broken, romantic relic. We re-established a kind of wholeness, making it stable, binding it together; but we retained a feeling of incompleteness, leaving it porous, its wounds still open.

The house is inside-out: ruin had already blurred its boundaries. We pieced in new walls, lintels and roofs to buttress and tie the remnants, and re-established its cellular logic. The 15th- and 17th-century rooms are left as open courts, rooms with ‘a fresco of clouds on their ceiling’.


The house is also upside-down. By partitioning the ground floor we fitted four bedrooms and three bathrooms. The first floor - with its grand renaissance windows and savage gashes - is a large hall, with living, dining and kitchen areas. We kept the large gashes, and glazed them. The church is the fourth wall of the living area, while the courts open up beside the dining table.

We pieced in with brick, precast concrete and laminated timber: their colour engages with the red sandstone and green limestone; their strength is partly concealed. Everything steps, because nothing we connect to has a straight edge, and nothing aligns; and because this allows thin, modern construction and thick, ancient construction a kind of equality.

With the inner core sitting within a perforated outer shell, the house is like a sundial, the sun tracing the day across its floors and walls. It breathes with the seasons, its covered courts inviting the guests to expand into the warm summer air or retreat to the stove in winter. It’s a festive house, where guests live an experience of collective time - conversations across generations and distances are framed by the centuries and the hours.

William Mann, director, Witherford Watson Mann

Read Joseph Rykwert’s building study (AJ 05.07.12)

Judges’ citation

The brief from the Landmark Trust was to provide a contemporary house within the footprint of the ruins of a 12th-century fortified manor destroyed by a fire in 1978. The decision to put the bedrooms and bathrooms on the ground floor and the communal spaces above makes the experience of the house very special.

The sculptural central staircase is the pivot around which the bedrooms are organised, and leads to an open-plan living space with views over the ancient ruins and the moated gardens. Perhaps the most impressive spaces are outdoors: the ruins of the Tudor and Jacobean wings.

The experience and reading of the remains is enhanced by the new interventions. The architects have developed a set of carefully considered rules and methodology for new construction against the existing structure.

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