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Before Astley Castle exploded onto the architectural scene as winner of the 2013 Stirling Prize I confess to coveting its magazine images. I filed it away in a special folder to peek at every now and again to reassure myself restoration and re-use could be both daring and empathetic, beautiful yet robust, and celebrated the use of ‘honest’ materials in a considered manner.

Greatness cannot be kept secret and Witherford Watson Mann’s scheme commissioned by the Landmark Trust has rightly been recognised as initiating a new direction in our approach to our relationship with heritage. It has simultaneously re-ignited a wider public debate on the the re-use of buildings which had all but dropped off the nation’s consciousness in recent years.

A public lecture on 12th February 2014 hosted by LSECities in collaboration with The Landmark Trust and Sir John Soane’s Museum has raised the intellectual discussion of bringing old and new together in a seamless way: director of LSE Cities, Ricky Burdett, terms this ‘Broken Edges’. Richard Sennett, Professor of Sociology at LSE, summarised Astley Castle’s significance in this debate as manifesting the ‘tension between accretion and rupture’, and the embodiment of what a model of growth for cities could look like.

The balance of ‘tension’ in Astley Castle perfectly captures the excitement I felt upon learning of the scheme; as a metaphor for an approach to knitting together the urban fabric and disparate communities in cities it brings clarity to this endeavour.

Overriding the physicality of single buildings or sprawling cities is time: According to WWM Astley Castle captures a ‘moment in time’. Whilst it will weather on its new trajectory the ruins have been all but ‘frozen’ for our lifetime. Cities, by contrast, have to be incrementally developed. WWM’s scheme at Bankside over the last 7 years is described by Stephen Witherford as a ‘temporal’ project which seeks to ‘seed initiative to others’ – as instigator of regeneration and re-engagement with our shared spaces.

For me Astley Castle is ‘progressive heritage’, but even more importantly it has trascended disciplines. It is hugely important to consider our re-use of the built environment in its wider context and to do this is in an informed way. In a more intellectual era, where specialisms pervade, collaboration and sharing of knowledge is imperative. The debate of re-engagement with heritage to tackle our social problems now has a vehicle to develop a meaningful legacy.

One thing bothers me: Astley Castle is a singular project – will its philosophy of heritage prevail, or is it in danger of becoming a ‘blueprint’ solution for less imaginative clients and design teams to adopt? What do you think?

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