The poetic character of the ruins – which since the romantic period dominated English art and culture – has always fascinated artists and architects of every generation. Sir John Soane, architect and collector, and his house (now museum that carries his name) at No.13 Lincoln’s Inn Fields in London certainly represent respectively the cult figure and the sanctuary for antiques and relics lovers.
The museum is an excellent choice for the just-opened show about the winning project of the 2013 edition of the RIBA Stirling Prize, awarded to architectural firm Witherford Watson Mann for their restoration project of Astley Castle in Warwickshire. The exhibition – which showcases unseen visual material about the project and will stay open until the 15th of February – is titled “Cities and Other Ruins – Reflections on Astley Castle by Witherford Watson Mann” and tackles the question of intervening on existing structures and urban environment and also relates to the architects’ previous work on city’s consolidated sites and listed buildings.
The London-based firm has approached and dealt with the urban environment at different scales and existing conditions; from public housing and public buildings like the Whitechapel Gallery or the Olympic housing to post-industrial landscape and disregarded urban areas including the detailed proposals for the Olympic Park site and the project for the Woolwich Town Centre. Mainly working in the London area the architects are familiar with a layered and diversified built environment rich of historical and cultural significance. They claim they learnt to master the unfinished aspect of the city: “Responding each time afresh to the unique conditions, our one common theme is making the most of what’s already there.”
The firm seems to have inherited a lot from the British architectural tradition and especially from the work of Alison and Peter Smithson of the 50’s and 60’s. The discourse that they started in relation to the city context and the question of reconstruction of widely compromised areas in London after the Second World War, adopting the philosophy of the “as found” material, is certainly a pertinent reference to mention in relation to WWM work.
The show, which displays unseen material about the Astley Castle project, tackles the question of the ruin in the contemporary architectural discourse, addressing it at the scale of the building and the city; it also questions how to approach restoration on buildings of historical significance both through the material about Astley Castle and also through the framework of the museum itself. In fact, Soane’s Museum is also currently protagonist of a restoration project oriented to restore John Soane’s original vision and therefore aimed at privileging a specific moment in time, reopening the debate about restoration criteria that has taken place since the 19th Century.
The restoration of the 12th Century listed building in Warwickshire, which has been converted into a holiday home that belongs to the Landmark Trust, capitalizes the use value of the building and combines the aesthetic taste for the ruin visibly exposed and the modern character of the redesigned interior.
The legibility of the modern intervention on the existing structure allows the visitor to distinguish clearly the “lacunas” or missing parts on the old building structure and therefore emphasizes the aesthetic value of the original fabric in decay. Looking at the building from outside the intervention seems nearly paraphrasing the Cesare Brandi’s guidelines for the restoration of paintings and frescos; however, where the latter’s lacunas were filled mainly to recompose the unity or legibility of the original image, the architect’s approach to the Castle’s project works also in favor of the modern design of the interior.
Working with what is “already there” assumes always new meaning in different historical periods while at the same time still exposes architects and designers to the same challenges of 200 years ago. This exhibition – also accompanied by a lecture hosted by LCE Cities – offers a perfect chance to move back in time, overlap and confront new and old design challenges on the topic.
What other examples of the questions addressed in the show are emerging in the current architectural practice?