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September 26, 2013 10:17 pm
Astley Castle, a ruined house in Warwickshire, thoughtfully and beautifully turned into a holiday residence for the Landmark Trust, has won this year’s £20,000 Riba Stirling Prize, the UK’s most prestigious architecture award.
The building, designed by British architects Witherford Watson Mann, takes its character not from a conventional restoration of the ruins of a 12th-century manor house but from the way the new parts sit within the craggy ruined walls and the richly textured fragments of the old building.
It is an exquisitely crafted and beautifully wrought intervention, which manages to extend the life of a building that had been severely decaying since it was nearly destroyed by a fire in 1978.
There is nothing new about this approach to historic buildings on the continent, notably in Mediterranean countries where architects have somehow found ways of accommodating ruins and remnants in contemporary design, but it has been rare in Britain.
There is an extraordinary sophistication in the interventions at Astley Castle, with every junction and surface tailored into its precise location and crafted into its uniquely, eccentrically decayed and irregular place.
A new staircase of bronze and timber is light, elegant and exquisitely designed, while old brick and stone surfaces are left to display their scars and wrinkles as part of an elaborate game of gradually revealing the fabric’s history.
The most extraordinary space, however, is an outside dining hall within a ruined, roofless room. The huge fireplace remains, as do the window shutters hanging precariously off the glassless window openings. It is a surreal room, open to the elements yet intensely architectural, an immersion into a world that is decaying and degrading and a poignant acknowledgment that no building, no matter how solid or stately, lasts forever.
The competition this year featured a symbolic and sophisticated chapel (Bishop Edward King Chapel) by Niall McLaughlin Architects; an impressive visitors’ centre at the Giant’s Causeway in Bushmills (Northern Ireland) by HeneghanPeng; a Medical School in Limerick (Ireland) by Grafton Architects; and a fine ensemble of contemporary housing by Alison Brooks Architects in Harlow.
But arguably the most interesting entry apart from the winner was the revival of a huge 1960s housing development in the centre of Sheffield. Park Hill was one of the most influential, and ultimately most reviled, housing estates to emerge from the modern movement in Britain. The first phase of its redevelopment by developer Urban Splash and architects Hawkins Brown and Egret West has transformed it into a viable and sustainable development that uses the embodied energy of the existing concrete frame.
It raises many of the same questions as Astley Castle about what to do with existing structures: both buildings, in their own way, were architecturally protected ruins. In Park Hill’s case there are some legitimate concerns about gentrification of the kind of social housing that is now so much in demand and so high on the political agenda. But without major state or municipal investment it is difficult to see any alternative and the result is the retention of an undoubted architectural landmark.
If it might have been politically expedient to give the prize to one of the two housing developments, given the prominence of housing in the political discourse, there can be no doubt that Astley Castle is a welcome winner and perhaps the most architecturally rewarding and finely designed victor of the past two decades.
The prize has in previous years gone to self-consciously modern architects from Richard Rogers and Norman Foster to Zaha Hadid. This year, however, it seems to mark a sophistication that acknowledges the complexity and carefulness demanded by working with the remains of the past and knitting it all into a coherent and beautiful present, which addresses not just space but time, decay and the inevitability of change.
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