In the sensitive renewal of this dilapidated castle in rural Warwickshire, the ancient shell forms a container for a dynamic series of contemporary spaces
Seven years ago, the future of Astley seemed very bleak indeed. The castle was not so much the ruin of a small medieval fortification, but more the ravaged and derelict survivor of six centuries of changing use and abuse. The cycle of partial demolition and rebuilding finally appeared to have run the course in 1978 with a suspicious fire, on the eve of its surrender by the then hotelier occupants, to the Warwickshire estate of Arbury on which the castle sits.
There followed long and uneasy discussions between English Heritage and Lord Daventry, the Estate’s owner. In the search for a viable restoration project it was no help that, at least as a weekend destination for bankers, Arbury is an island of unspoilt (and unspectacular) rural landscape, barely afloat in a sea of second-string Midlands industrial towns. Nuneaton, Coventry and Sutton Coldfield all lurk just beyond the view from the battlements.
The involvement of the Landmark Trust, as a charity dedicated to saving important orphaned buildings, by making them habitable for holiday lettings, made them an obvious saviour. The Landmark’s cautious and well-proven model of project-by-project capital raising came hard up against the economics of any conventional restoration; a campaign for a complete rehabilitation was beyond reach, or sense.
There were real questions, too, about whether enough of the original internal fabric (by then, entirely fenced off less for its own good than for the danger it posed to the curious) survived to justify a project on those terms. And besides, Astley as it then (only just) stood, was less remarkable for what had survived of its early construction than for having survived at all. Its special plangence as a building was the result of the centuries of determined re-use; however inappropriate and inconvenient many of these uses had proved, each had added a new layer to the crumpled palimpsest.
Against this unpromising background, in the autumn of 2006 the Trust launched an invited competition for living accommodation on the site. This was a dogged and very imaginative initiative, born a little out of collective desperation. Astley Castle will open to the first ‘landmarker’ family in early July; the project, as it has slowly emerged, represents a real career milestone both for the Landmark Trust itself and for Witherford Watson Mann, the winning architectural practice. It marks also something of a change of front for English Heritage, and even perhaps in our collective understanding of the duty contemporary architecture might owe to the past.
The rebirth of Astley in this elegantly assured, thoughtful, project presents a strong new line of attack for future interactions with old buildings, and one that may yet prove as useful within the fabric of the city as it does here in Warwickshire. This is quite a large claim for our understated architectural discourse to digest easily; its defence requires both the assertion of the startling quality of the new Astley as a work of architecture, but it is important also to be try to convey some understanding of the intimate process by which client and architect learned over time to integrate their very different sensibilities, to the great benefit of the completed project.
WWM were selected at interview stage, from a long list of practices that included Caruso St John, Jamie Fobert and Stanton Williams. The very loose brief had hinted that the Trust were now ready to consider any new and considered approach to the stabilisation and re-inhabitation of the castle. At its simplest, the problem that all the competing architects had faced was of how to stabilise and convert a ruin without ruining it further. Inevitably perhaps, in several of the competition entries the ruins themselves were rather uncomfortably aestheticised; one competitor even suggesting a new house to stand beside the existing castle on its moated site. Instead, WWM proposed threading an armature of new masonry work throughout the main sections of the ruin, with the double job of both stabilising and protecting the early stonework and of providing a rigid frame to which the new living accommodation, of timber, could attach itself.
This is an idea strong and simple enough to win any competition, and always thereafter to be so central to the project in hand that it survives in the detailed development of the design. As it is actually built-out at Astley, in flat Danish bricks with concrete lintels to the openings, this spine is a strong presence throughout the new house and as it extends itself over vulnerable parts of the ruins outside. Everywhere, the new masonry clings to the lines of the original stonework, thoughtfully adapting itself as it goes to the irregularities and weaknesses of the earlier structure. Half a metre away, the same brick then butts crisply to the joinery of the new construction.
Fifteen years ago, Bath Spa had made a fetish of the minimal expression of such junctions of new and old, and then seized this slightly bare pretext for a display of a technological baroque in the new structure. This approach – the already faded orthodoxy of its day – quite literally allowed the architects and the officers of English Heritage to go their separate ways on the same site.
In stark contrast, WWM produced more than a hundred working drawings which addressed only the meetings between the new brickwork and the broken edges of the old building. Indeed, this approach generated its own powerful aesthetic rhetoric, but in the process it freed up much of the thinking (and, indeed, some of the conventional expense) on the other aspects of the scheme.
Thus delicately reframed, the many layers of the surviving original structure can be examined for what they are, and in a comfortable intimacy; everywhere the team was careful to keep the surface record of Astley’s long history, moving the project away from the antiquarian concept of a sanitised ruin. At the same time, the simple wooden frame that forms the new house presents itself as a benign colonisation of the older building; its peculiar bagginess is very much in the spirit of the castle’s previous occupations.
The hall and bedrooms which form the ground floor seep opportunistically into surprising courtyard spaces, and up against the battlement walls. A platform lift, that makes a slow ascent between distressed wall surfaces, has been slipped into the vestiges of the medieval vice [?] tower. The very large combined living space in which it arrives exploits the wider gaps in the medieval structure with a series of four bold windows. Two of these give views over the fine surviving landscape of the park and towards the collegiate church of St Mary, a hundred metres to the south. The third huge opening, in fact the single most forceful architectonic statement in the project, looks into two courtyards formed from the shell of the castle; the first of these provides thoughtful access to the house through the ruins, the second forms an outside dining and sitting room for which the original great chimney has been put back into use. Over both, the architects have extended their stabilising spine, as a half-roof along the top of the walls.
At these moments in the building there is a playfulness that sits easily with the loose-fit approach to the massing and detailing of the new accommodation; together they play to the eccentric habitability that characterises all of the Landmark’s projects. In this respect the Trust must be the most exigent of developers, and it says much for the collaboration between the two teams that the client has got just the building it needed, however roundabout the process.
The rigour of WWM’s initial approach to the project must have seemed at times a rod for their own backs, but it did provide a necessary mediation between offering Astley the chance of another life, and of what was worth preserving from its old – frankly, rather cursed – self. The elegance of this strategy meant that in the end very little has really been lost – perhaps just the passing glimpse of a picturesque skyline, inaccessible at close quarters and unlikely to have been there at all in a very few years. What has been gained is of course a standing invitation to Landmark Trust customers to view the best of the ruin in sensual close-up; but, equally important, there is a sense of the project as an extended meditation on what contemporary architecture might be able to achieve in a direct, generous, confrontation with any existing built fabric.