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Negotiating the ruin: The story of Stirling Prize winning Astley Castle in drawings

The reinhabitation of Astley Castle, told through the drawings of its architects, Witherford Watson Mann


The cleared courts from a photographic series by Hélène Binet

We encountered the ruins at Astley after the latest period of destruction. The ravages of fire and 30 years’ patient work of water had made it almost impossible to know where to start. There was a will to see these stonesinhabited again in some way and we approached the tangle of nature and broken walls in this spirit of continuity.

At a time when walls teetered dangerously or lay hidden behind piles of rubble, drawings and models were our maps, allowing us first to survey the terrain then plot a path. Sifting what we found, we slowly discovered an order where there appeared to be none. The horizons of the site; moat, mound, curtain wall, first floor, landscape, castellated parapet and sky were set against the huge gashes and broken edges.

Through the acts of looking, drawing, discussing and modelling we negotiated the vast spectrum of found conditions to establish another order. An empathetic order that served to heighten the awareness of what we found rather than dominate it.

Through graphite and card we evolved a nimble and playful set of relationships which bound the new and the old together in an act of mutual dependency.

We made a virtue from our biggest difficulty: that we didn’t have the budget to inhabit more than a third of the old house. Positioned deliberately between a stabilised ruin and a full restoration, the project respects incompleteness and recognises the incremental nature of what gets made; what resists over time; and the social imagination to draw these conditions together in a setting for sharing with others.

We have added modestly but forcefully to a place accumulated over centuries, through long cycles of growth and decay: while this used to be common architectural practice, it makes Astley unusual for our times. And yet this open-ended evolution is totally normal in the city. For us, the project suggests that the spatial and tectonic negotiation here embodies a practical wisdom whose generosity could be the basis of a more profound general commitment to civic culture.


Broader site condition. Astley Castle anchored on mound encircled by moat


Competition design. House inserted in half of the ruin, courts form an external room


Sketch of medieval wall to courts. New masonry stabilises the ruin


Sketch of court when ‘T’ lintel emerges, tying medieval wall to freestanding chimney


Development of tectonic order from irregular ruin fragments. Diaphragms in new brick wall and window mullion rhythms



Competition idea: the new construction stabilises and binds together the ruin


Establishing three-dimensional alignments between bowing medieval masonry and new brickwork


‘Finding’ brick language to accommodate the curving and stepping geometry of ruined curtain wall


Construction drawing for brickwork of the plan generated from the two sketches above


Drawing that projects the plan offset from the stair balustrade as it splays out from stringer


Early sketch of at least fourth stair design where idea of joinery and part suspended stair emerges


Drawing to engineers to communicate steel stringer to ground floor bearing with final splayed baluster


The newly discovered medieval arch during clearing work and how to incorporate in new brickwork


Site working drawing for new brickwork stabilisation to splayed curtain wall reveals, with geometry for bearing of joists above


Perspective of the upper room looking towards external courts, projecting stair geometry


External court to the north suggesting the outside room and reclaimed brick herring- bone path alongside herringbone in fireplace


Model showing the new carpentry that creates the habitable spaces


Model showing a cast of the new brickwork built directly onto existing wall lines that stabilises the ruin


Model showing a cast of the cleared ruin

Fact File:

Cities and Other Ruins - Reflections on Astley Castle by Witherford Watson Mann
Exhibition runs 4-15 February at the Sir John Soane Museum, London (
Public lecture Wednesday 12 February 2014, 6.30pm, Sheikh Zayed Lecture Theatre, LSE








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