Astley Castle Wins The RIBA Stirling Prize 2013 For Architecture

Astley Castle has won the RIBA Stirling Prize 2013 for best new building. The project, a groundbreaking modern holiday home inserted into the crumbling walls of an ancient moated castle, in Warwickshire excelled over the five other shortlisted entries. The architects, Witherford Watson Mann were rewarded with the UK’s most prestigious architecture award.

The presentation of the RIBA Stirling Prize trophy to Witherford Watson Mann Architects took place at a special ceremony this evening (Thursday 26 September) at Central Saint Martins, King’s Cross, London.

Astley Castle is a 12th century fortified manor which had been lying in ruins since a fire gutted it in 1978.  When the architects came to work on the building it was in a state of collapse and on the Heritage at Risk Register. What has been built is no straightforward restoration, the building had seen additions and revisions carried out in almost every century since Medieval times, so knowing which period to emulate would have been impossible. The architects solution was to stabilise the ruin and create the next layer of the building’s history.  The result is a highly complex and original new house giving the castle’s visitors a truly unique experience.

Speaking tonight, RIBA President Stephen Hodder said: “Astley Castle is an exceptional example of how modern architecture can revive an ancient monument.  It is significant because rather than a conventional restoration project, the architects have designed an incredibly powerful contemporary house which is expertly and intricately intertwined with 800 years of history. Every detail has been carefully considered, from a specific brick pattern to the exact angle of a view, resulting in a sensually rich experience for all who visit. This beautiful new building is a real labour of love. It was realised in true collaboration between a visionary client, designer and contractors. I am delighted to present Witherford Watson Mann with the 2013 RIBA Stirling Prize.”

This is the first time Witherford Watson Mann has won or been shortlisted for the RIBA Stirling Prize. Their previous buildings include the Amnesty International UK headquarters, the Whitechapel Art Gallery extension in London with Robbrecht en Daem, and Arts Council Manchester.

Astley Castle was chosen by the judges from the following outstanding shortlisted entries:

    • Bishop King Edward Chapel, Cuddesdon, Oxfordshire by Niall McLaughlin Architects
    • Giant’s Causeway Visitor Centre, Northern Ireland by heneghan peng architects
    • Newhall Be, Harlow by Alison Brooks Architects
    • Park Hill Phase 1, Sheffield by Hawkins\Brown with Studio Egret West
    • University of Limerick Medical School by Grafton Architects

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.

As the 2014 Royal Gold Medallist, Joseph Rykwert, said of this project, “there is no comparable recovery of an ancient monument anywhere in this country, and very few elsewhere.” The question of conservation and finding new uses for buildings whose original function has disappeared is extremely pertinent today, not only because of our economic climate, but because this is a country that wears its past resolutely on its sleeve. History is central to our national identity. This is a clever and robust response to the issue, instead of one that is over cautious or that clashes, inappropriately. So much so that the one upholds the other in every sense. Here history becomes a living, energetic force.

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