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Quiet intervention

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Witherford Watson Mann’s sensitive re-occupation of Astley Castle saves the essential and excises the incidental, writes Joseph Rykwert. Photography by Helene Binet

Ruined Astley Castle in Warwickshire had been the venerable home of the tragic nine-day queen Lady Jane Grey. It may still be deeply moated but it has lost some of its battlements - along with much else. Passing through various more or less noble families, from the Greys to the Chamberlains and Newdigates (who neglected it for the better-endowed, nearby Arbury), the castle, which had turned into a crenellated manor, was gradually downgraded to a dingy, but ivy- wreathed hotel after the war. Though listed Grade II, it quickly declined into ruin when gutted by fire in 1978.

Ever since then it has crumbled, not all that gently, and quite dangerously to the odd scavenger or climber. It may have been venerable enough to claim some respect from its owners, yet it was virtually impossible (as well as prohibitively expensive) to attempt a reconstruction of the building to any of its more glorious former states.

Thirty years after the fire, the Landmark Trust took it over and held a competition to stabilise the ruin and turn the resurrected building into one of the trust’s residences. Rather than attempt even a partial restoration, or inserting a new, completely detached structure into what remained, the winner of the competition, Witherford Watson Mann (whose work at the Whitechapel Gallery first brought the practice to public notice), has taken possession of Astley to create a wholly new fabric which allows them to restrain the ruins and yet acknowledge each historical stage of the building so as to allow them all some presence in the renovation.

Such an approach has been tried successfully in Germany but is unfamiliar in this country, even if it was pioneered here over a century ago by that Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings which William Morris affectionately mocked as ‘anti-scrape’.

The new accommodation centres on the original Norman castle, but also takes in the space between it and the perimeter wall, which is also the retaining wall of the moat. Four bedrooms and three bathrooms have been created at ground level, while the upper floor transforms the keep into a spacious living-dining-kitchen room - double-square if not double- cube - more like the gallery of an Elizabethan manor with its large south-west window opening on a view of the village and the church. The south-east window looks into the two chambers of the 17th-century addition, separated by a massy fireplace, which has been turned into an open, though partly roofed courtyard. Only some of the dilapidated Victorian additions have been demolished.

This has meant that any new construction, whether in brick or timber, has to be scribed to take up the irregular and sometime jagged profiles where new work butts up closely to the stabilised remains, some of which still retain patches of the original plaster. These material remains are partly in brick but mostly in a reddish local sandstone, of which the nearby parish church, once a priory, is also built. Quoins and window frames (some include fragments of tracery) are of a duller but harder limestone.

Where new diaphragm walls are inserted, they take up the thickness of the existing structure. They are of thin, 30mm buff Danish bricks laid in a complex bond and exposed both outside and inside. Their muted, pinkish-grey colour is introduced into the existing materials so as to provide a contrast and act as a replacement of the broken stone walls.

Openings are spanned, and some detail added in acid-etched, pre-cast fine aggregate concrete, which echoes the vertical limestone framing of the Elizabethan windows, their rhythm taken up and echoed in the wooden vertical glazing as well as in the studs which support the beechwood ply panelling. This encloses all the newly created spaces on the ground floor, and is also echoed in the exposed joists of the ceilings of all the interiors.

The floors are tiled in the public spaces and in the cooking area and the bathrooms, but wood is used in the new bedrooms and in the living area.
One conspicuous insertion is the cage of the staircase in the main hall, which rises into the living space and almost seems a piece of cabinetwork with its steel, but bronze-coloured (as is all the door-furniture) railing. It is typical enough of the whole scheme. Such detailing throughout is discrete but always considered, so that you are never, not even in quirky corners like the stepped niche over the kitchen hob, conscious of the designers’ ingenuity.

Restored, Astley is a graphic account of its own history. Even the woodwork of some window casings has been left in place, and creepers have returned to their mantling work. Witherford Watson Mann have been gentle surgeons, saving the essential, eliminating the incidental. What they have done cannot aim at perfection, yet it is exemplary. There is no comparable recovery of an ancient monument anywhere in this country, and very few elsewhere.

Joseph Rykwert is author of a number of books on architecture, including The Judicious Eye (2008)

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