Astley Castle exterior.
© Landmark Trust Astley Castle exterior.

The 2013 Stirling Prize, awarded by the the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA), has gone to a ruin. Mind you, this ruin is not just any old collection of stones jumbled together in a more or less romantic manner. It is the remnants of a historically significant castle, parts of which are medieval. Under the direction of London-based Witherford Watson Mann Architects, Astley Castle in Warwickshire has turned into a rental property that lets visitors repose in comfort amidst the ruins.

It appears to be a beautifully conceived and executed project, though I have not seen it. What I think is remarkable is what the prize says about the state of at least British architecture. After an era of awards going to exuberance from the hands of Zaha Hadid and some of the other kick-out-the-jams Brits, this year's prize recognizes, first of all, that we are in a more sober moment. It might have taken a while for built reality to catch up with economic conditions, but it surely has. All of this year's six final projects were modest, and two of them were renovations.

View to courtyard.
Credit: © Helene Binet

View to courtyard.

That modesty continued into the sensibilities in the five designs. Though the Bishop Edward King Chapel in Oxford by London's Niall McLaughlin Architects sports a structure that is complex and wow-inducing, it is so in a manner that shows off a continuity of tradition going back at least to the Middle Ages. A closed brick wall, moreover, dominates its exterior. All the buildings are modern, eschewing any attempts to look old, but they use traditional concepts of proportion, construction, and spatial sequencing. Even the renovation of the Brutalist housing block Park Hill in Sheffield by London-based Hawkins\Brown not only recuperates a piece of history, but integrates it into longer traditions of living by adopting the cellular design to a more flexible and comfortable style of life.

Bishop Edward King Chapel in Oxford by London's Niall McLaughlin Architects.
Credit: Niall McLaughlin

Bishop Edward King Chapel in Oxford by London's Niall McLaughlin Architects.

Park Hill in Sheffield by London-based Hawkins\Brown.
Daniel Hopkinson Park Hill in Sheffield by London-based Hawkins\Brown.

The winning design is remarkable in its complete acceptance, but also its reactive stance, to history. The architects used as a rule that whatever could stand on its own should stay. They then wove together the various walls with a lattice of wood, glass, brick, and tile. Everything had to stand on the existing foundations. Where the new met the old, they were careful to emphasize the contrast both in material and color and in different properties—the tile edge acts as a mediator between the stone, still seeping moisture after all these centuries, and the new wood.

In the video that accompanies the announcement, the architects also explain that they had "an idea, not a real plan." They reacted to conditions they found, devised solutions as problems arose, and used opportunities to create continuity and comfort as they became available.

The success of their approach comes out of the limit of the problem and what appears to have been a reasonably ample budget provided by their client, the Landmark Trust. Yet it also evidences a way of making architecture that starts from what we have inherited, both in terms of materials and places, and in terms of how we make, think about, and represent buildings (architecture, in other words), and then weaves the new through that. The result has the quality of a collage. It is hybrid by its very nature. It is minimal and minimally invasive. It is the building block for new attitudes towards design.

Aaron Betsky is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.