Beth Elen Roberts
I am a spatial designer and researcher with a fascination for adaptive reuse, and originally studied fine arts at Chelsea College of Art (UAL) in 2013, receiving a first-class degree. During my BA, I had the opportunity to specialize in Sculpture, Sound and Spatial practice during an exchange semester at RMIT in Melbourne, Australia.
After graduating, I assisted in prop-making for theatre (ROH) and retail in London (James Glancy Design), and undertook a collaborative sculpture residency in Jodhpur, India. I was also selected as lead invigilator for Wales in Venice, at the 2017 Venice Biennale and continued to exhibit my work widely, at events such as the National Eisteddfod ‘Y Lle Celf’ and Peckham Arts Festival.
I have continued my higher education at the RCA, specializing in Interior Reuse at the School of Architecture and in my final year, have assisted as a student researcher for a publication on Radical Heritages. With a passion for history and narrative, my final master’s dissertation, ‘Finding Place in Hiraeth,’ explored the meaning of 'place' and heritage in Wales through historic literature and photography, for which I was awarded a distinction.
I am fascinated by the stories that reside within heritage sites and how they can persist within the material and spaces that remain. It is my understanding that the past is an ever-evolving language; a text that can be read but also reconfigured; translated into new verse. For my final thesis project, it was the story and character of Sheppey, and of our site the Dockyard church that became my text to decipher and re-tell.
As our ‘locked-down’ lives and studies became fastened to a new virtual world; I found myself returning to pencil and paper. I relished the way that working by hand could imbue my drawings with a sense of tactility, enhancing the presence of light and dark, of varying textures and weight. Without access to a studio space or workshop, I embraced these primary tools, realizing the story of my design through a series of collages, pencil drawings and a hand-drawn animation.
With the current global focus on the conservation and reuse of our resources, I am very eager to pursue my interest in adaptive reuse, to understand more about the potential of reviving and extending the lives of existing sites and matter, to unravel and celebrate their stories.
This project was conceived as a space that connects the island back to the sea. It does this through reworking the existing building and the site to create the Thames Ship Lab; a space where wrecks are excavated from the seabed, and brought to the building to be analysed, researched and preserved. This material is contextualised in an exhibition, choreographed to correspond to each stage of the laboratory’s conservation process.
In order to reinforce and expose the fragility of the existing building, both in its condition, but also how Sheppey, a swampy island, is constructed like Venice, atop timber piles, the main intervention takes the form of a deep excavation. The interior of the ruined church is dug down four stories deep. This move reinforces the archaeological dimensions of the lab’s work; with fragile artefacts re-submerged into the depths to be worked upon, alluding to the surrounding dockyard, once built upon the skeletal remains of decommissioned ship hulks.
As visitors enter the church, they are surprised to find that the ground falls away before them, revealing a four-storey vertical laboratory, animated with workers, technicians and exhibition-goers. The dynamism of this space is extended through the action of a crane, fixed to the roof, delivering artefacts from a new canal beside the building, allowing direct passage between site and sea.
The new laboratory enables visitors to learn from not just the island but also the sea that surrounds it, engaging them in a subterranean excavation of the unseen archaeology that is hidden all around them, a celebration of Sheppey’s rich and bountiful maritime history.