Witherford Watson Mann has won the RIBA Stirling Prize with its revamp of the 12th-century Astley Castle in Warwickshire
The £1.35 million project was chosen for the most prestigious accolade in UK architecture ahead of five other contenders, including Niall McLaughlin’s Bishop Edward King Chapel - the bookies’ favourite at 5/4 - and Park Hill Phase 1 by Hawkins\Brown with Studio Egret West, which was voted the people’s champion by AJ readers.
Backed by the Landmark Trust, the conversion of the ruin into a holiday home was hailed as ‘a prototype for a new attitude to restoration and reuse’ when it was shortlisted for the prize back in July (see AJ 18.07.13). The 285m² building had also been in contention for this year’s Manser Medal.
However bookmaker William Hill had not considered a victory for Astley Castle likely, giving it odds of just 6/1 when the book closed.
Click on the image to see more drawings of Astley Castle by Witherford Watson Mann Architects in the AJ Buildings Library
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.
I don’t think the building will win the prize
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.
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.
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
Judges’ shortlisting 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.