The reinhabitation of Astley Castle, told through the drawings of its architects, Witherford Watson Mann
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.
Cities and Other Ruins - Reflections on Astley Castle by Witherford Watson Mann
Exhibition runs 4-15 February at the Sir John Soane Museum, London (www.soane.org)
Public lecture Wednesday 12 February 2014, 6.30pm, Sheikh Zayed Lecture Theatre, LSE