Never before recognised in the RIBA Stirling Prize programme, Witherford Watson Mann Architects have been named winners of this year’s award. The team has been celebrated for its restoration of Astley Castle in Warwickshire; a sensitive conservation scheme which saw a residential property inserted into crumbling countryside ruins for the Landmark Trust.
Technically a fortified manor rather than a castle, Witherford Watson Mann Architects’ Stirling Prize-winning scheme in Warwickshire is the renovation of a Grade II* listed country treasure. This 12th century property has been in continuous occupation since the Saxon period and is now being rented out for short lets by the Landmark Trust.
In the historic property’s ruins, Witherford Watson Mann Architects created a contemporary residential scheme which is sensitive to the original form but offers high-end comforts to the modern user. Bathrooms and bedrooms for 8 residents are spread across the ground floor while communal spaces are located above. Highlights include a grand dining room with a rustic table in the centre of a cavernous red-brick volume.
This is the first time that a residential or conservation project has won the Stirling Prize, with previous successful projects ranging from commercial buildings (30 St Mary Axe) to infrastructure projects (Madrid Barajas Airport) and cultural facilities (MAXXI National Museum).
As RIBA President Stephen Hodder concluded during the official announcement on Thursday 26 September: “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.”
Since construction on the original building completed in medieval times, Astley Castle has undergone revisions and structural stability works almost every century meaning the final product is a melange of styles and layers of design. As a result, Witherford Watson Mann Architects chose to add a new layer to the - at that point dilapidated - scheme rather than selecting one stage in its history and mimicking this.
The judges’ citation reads: “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.”