Witherford Watson Mann’s new house within the ruined fragments of Astley Castle creates a physical and emotional connection between old and new
Astley Castle, in north Warwickshire, is a fortified manor house that dates from the 12th century but was almost entirely rebuilt in the 1500s by the Grey family. This clan played a starring role in British history of the period: Edward IV and Henry VII both married Greys who had lived at Astley, and one former resident, Lady Jane Grey, famously reigned as queen for nine days in 1553. The house’s architectural significance is reflected by its grade II* listing but since 1978 has stood as a ruin, having been consumed by fire in its last incarnation as a hotel. Five years ago, the Landmark Trust embarked on a last-ditch attempt to save the house, or what remained of its fabric. It held an architectural competition for a significantly less costly project than that which it had planned initially. The brief was for a new house, which would squat parasitically within the old and would be let as a holiday home in the manner of the trust’s other properties. The existing structure would be stabilised to spare it from further decay, but its appearance would remain largely unchanged.
Witherford Watson Mann’s winning scheme stood out for the attentiveness of its response to the found condition. Where most other entrants saw the brief as an invitation to make an intervention that stood in dramatic contrast to the encompassing ruin, WWM recognised that the more exciting — not to say affordable — task was to develop a strategy of repair that would allow a part of the existing fabric to be returned to use. Its approach belongs to a tradition of highly principled conservation pioneered by Hans Dollgast in his post-war reconstruction of Munich’s bomb-damaged Alte Pinakothek (1957) and which includes such more recent examples as Giorgio Grassi’s work to the Roman theatre at Sagunto (1993) and David Chipperfield and Julian Harrap’s reconstruction of Berlin’s Neues Museum (2009).
In each of these cases, William Morris’s edict that new interventions should remain distinguishable from original fabric provided a guiding principle. Mocking-up lost fabric was deemed verboten, with the building’s ruination remaining a discernible episode in its history. But 135 years on from the formation of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, this commitment to a strategy of conservation rather than restoration, is not, in itself, unusual.
The brief was for a new house which would squat parasitically within the old
What distinguishes these projects is their architects’ determination to address the buildings in their care as more than mere archaeological artifacts. Yes, their interventions are distinguishable from the original fabric but they also strive to reassert architectural characteristics that have been diminished by that fabric’s decay. The aim is not to make a drama of the contrast between new and old but rather to engineer a reading in which successive periods of building activity contribute to a holistic effect.
As a consequence of Astley’s 800-year history, the fabric with which WWM was presented was characterised by a palimpsestic quality from the first. One third of the house comprised a 19th century addition, which — being by far the most thinly built part — had suffered the most pronounced dilapidation and WWM elected to demolish it entirely. Of the rest, half represented the remains of the original manor house and half later additions which the Greys made in the 16th and 18th centuries. The new house — in itself a very sizable residence, capable of sleeping 10 — inhabits the oldest part of the fabric. What remains of the Greys’ additions has been structurally consolidated but left windowless and open to the sky.
WWM’s design is conceived as the product of a series of precisely defined building procedures. The first is the introduction of brick as a means of patching the existing sandstone walls. These new surfaces are of a diaphragm construction, allowing them to match the up to 2m depth of the existing structure. As in Peter Zumthor’s Kolumba, in Cologne, a long and narrow Petersen facing brick has been specified to better accommodate the cuts necessitated by the frequently ragged interface with the old fabric. Offering a good colour-match to the rosy sandstone, it is laid out on a quarter-lap with intermittent headers being used to bond into the diaphragm behind. The effect is every bit as substantial as the original fabric while conveying a delicacy and precision that distinguishes all aspects of the new work.
The brick is used as a means of tying the old fabric together, of framing door and window openings and of establishing a level base on which a new roof construction can be laid. This is a carpentry element, a flat plane supported on closely packed laminated pine beams, which extends across the plan’s whole footprint. It encloses the 12th century fabric entirely but offers only a partial covering to the two double-height volumes that comprise the later additions. A narrow strip of roof extends around the perimeter of each — just enough to protect the wall from further erosion while permitting rain to fall in the middle of the space, in the manner of a Roman atrium. The analogy is particularly apt as in their new guise these twinned spaces serve as forecourts to the house proper. Happily, they have not been domesticated too much. Ravaged window frames and shutters still cling valiantly to their openings, while creepers and nesting crows ramp up the air of gothic fantasy.
The new house presents a Russian doll arrangement of enclosures
If the fire can be said to have had any positive impact, the fact that it made the 12th century house a considerably less gloomy living environment was perhaps one. Thanks to the damage, WWM has been able to introduce very large window openings on the upper of its two storeys. However, the character of the lower level remained profoundly defensive, prompting the decision to site the bedrooms there and the living accommodation above. Two of the bedrooms are located within the demise of the old castle and two within a new single-storey extension that WWM has wedged between the castle and the outermost “curtain” wall. In order to make these spaces, the architect has introduced a further tectonic system: a birch ply partition wall, articulated through the expression of closely deployed floor to ceiling studs. A scrupulous distinction is therefore maintained between those walls (in brick) that paraphrase lost fabric and those (in wood) that have been introduced as a means of colonising the shell.
The insistent vertical division of the partition walls echoes the gothic proportions of Astley’s original windows and that theme is extended further in the treatment of the new glazing. This too is framed between full-height studs that progress without rhythmic modulation but in the larger expanses of glazing, a significant inflection is introduced by shifting the glass from the front to the back of the wall midway along its length. The architect describes this as a strengthening device — a gesture characteristic of a project in which constructional considerations and formal expression are particularly closely aligned.
The partition language also informs the very beautiful flitched oak staircase around which the plan of the new house revolves. This cage-like assembly is formed from oak studs that drop down from the first floor to support the stair-treads, providing in the process a means of protection around the perimeter. The inner balustrade is, by contrast, a demonstratively twisting form, fabricated in bronze painted steel rods. In the gloom of the lower level, one discovers its geometry through feeling rather than looking — a disconcerting encounter like finding oneself on the receiving end of a masonic handshake.
It is not hard to imagine that, in a century, the house might be serving another function
What one takes away is the sense of intimacy. As a house, within a ruin, on a moat-encircled island, the new residence presents a Russian doll arrangement of multiple enclosures. The stair is understood as the smallest and most refined space of all.
Its closeness also offers a dramatic contrast with the space that follows. The house’s upper floor is a single volume, 14m long, 7m wide, 4m high — a room of truly palatial dimensions. Lined out in terracotta tiles, the kitchen occupies a great niche in one wall, a feature, for which Lutyens’ Brobdingnagian fireplace at Lindisfarne Castle served as a point of reference. At the opposite end, a window commands a view of the landscape beyond the moat, a scene dominated by St Mary’s, a former priory that was substantially reduced in size and given over to parish use in the reformation. However, a still larger window looks east into the two ruined forecourts. Lying at the point where the 12th, 15th and 17th century parts of the house formerly converged, this rupture carries a particular poignancy. WWM hasn’t disguised the injury but it has reasserted a degree of structural co-dependence between the fragmented parts. Midway down the length of the precast concrete lintel that spans the 7m wide window opening, a stub branches out to engage the freestanding wall that separates the two forecourts. The resultant T-form represents the scheme’s largest single building component and carries an emblematic charge: a suture binding the castle together at its point of greatest fragility.
The Landmark Trust has to be applauded for undertaking this very radical project. At £2.5 million, the work has cost a quarter of the full “restoration” which it had initially hoped to undertake. In a country where 3% of grade I and II* buildings are identified by English Heritage as at risk, this surely offers a model worthy of much wider application. For WWM, Astley also represents a breakthrough project. Through its work on Amnesty International’s headquarters and the Whitechapel Art Gallery, the now 10-year old firm has long maintained a strong concern with the adaptation of existing buildings. However, in its extreme economy of means, this latest project presents itself with the conviction of a built manifesto.
While there are obvious connections to be drawn with a scheme like the reconstruction of the Neues Museum, the sensibility at work is ultimately distinct. In returning the Berlin building to use, Chipperfield and Harrap maintained a reading of its violent history but their reconstruction is, in its way, every bit as finite as Friedrich August Stüler’s original design. At Astley, WWM has maintained a much stronger sense that the new work is just the latest episode in a continuing process of adaptation. It is not hard to imagine that in a century’s time, the house might find itself in another economic climate, serving another function. Will the birch-ply partitions then still carve up the ground floor? Will the Greys’ additions still stand open to the sky? “A house knows that there is inevitably surgery in store for it,” John Hejduk wrote, and in its new incarnation Astley conveys that awareness particularly strongly. There is a melancholy attached to that knowledge but an optimism too: an architecture that lends itself to change is, after all, alive in a way that a monument never is. Meticulous but never precious, Witherford Watson Mann’s exemplary project honours Astley Castle’s past but defends its right to a future too.
Client: The Landmark Trust
Architect: Witherford Watson Mann Architects
Structural Engineer: Price & Myers
Quantity Surveyor and Contract Administrator: Jackson Coles
Outline Services design: Building Design Partnership
Approved Inspector: Oculus Building Consultancy
Main Contractor: William Anelay
Bricks: Petersen Tegl
Precast concrete lintels and copings: Cambridge Architectural Precast
Laminated timber: Dunscar Timber
Low iron glass: Pilkington
Roof coverings: Bauder
Terracotta tiles: Fired Earth/San Genis
Quarry tiling: Ruabon
Engineered wood block flooring: Junckers
Engineered oak flooring: Ted Todd
Lye and wood oil: Dane Care