Modern Architecture Meets Ancient Mythology
It might come as some surprise to learn that an aspiring young architect should not only be winning a scholarship in 2016, awarded on their 21st birthday, but be drawing inspiration from events real or imagined that date back as far as the 6th century. For Efa Lois Thomas, however, the links between the places of today and storytelling of the past are both real and rich in ideas.
It’s been an exciting year for the Austin-Smith:Lord Part 1 Architectural Assistant. Efa was awarded the National Eisteddfod scholarship for her concept of creating a Welsh Cultural Centre within a new building on Maryland Street in Liverpool, and she was also asked to feature on a panel for the Trust dedicated to celebrating the works of her idol, Dewi-Prys Thomas, all while settling into her first job in our Cardiff Studio here at Austin-Smith: Lord.
As if that wasn’t enough already, Efa’s unstoppable year just got better! On the first Friday in December, she presented in a ‘thought of the day’ speaking slot at the RSAW 2016 annual conference. Entitled ‘The Power of Place’, Efa’s session covered how stories, mythology and folklore can contribute to the significance of buildings, evolving throughout history.
We caught up with Efa to find out more about her passion for the tales from times gone by…
“I’ve always had a keen interest in how places and buildings have been influenced by the local landscape and how the history and stories attached to them have brought added significance”, Efa explains. “I’m really amazed by how the power associated with places and buildings evolves and changes throughout time.
“Back in the 1200s, for instance, castles were the political powerhouses of Wales and played a central role in the running of country through the princes of yesterday. Whilst this is no longer the case, their history means these buildings still hold major significance that carries a different sort of power – a nostalgic and enchanting power that catches hold of our imagination and emotionally binds us to the history of our great land.
“Experiences, nostalgia and stories form a large part of what constitutes places of significance”, she concludes. “A place, or a structure, can be unremarkable until a story brings it to life. In turn, buildings or stories can then lend immortality, of sorts, to those who were part of them.”
Challenged with the difficult task of selecting just a couple of examples of inspiring stories from the many fables of fact and fiction she knows and loves, Efa was persuaded to share with us her two personal favourites from folklore and mythology in Welsh history.
CANTRE’R GWAELOD: AN ANCIENT SUNKEN KINGDOM
“Having grown up in coastal Mid-Wales, this is a tale that holds great nostalgia for my peers and myself! Cantre’r Gwaelod, described as the Welsh Atlantis, is said to have occupied a tract of land between Ramsey Island and Bardsey Island in what is now Cardigan Bay. According to folklore, the land was catastrophically engulfed by the sea sometime in the 6th century when a prince named Seithennyn, responsible for sea-defences, had got drunk at a feast and failed to close the floodgates.
“The remains of an ancient forest can be seen in Ynyslas, near Aberystwyth when the tide is out, and it is said that the natural causeways along Cardigan Bay correspond to the sea-walls of Cantre’r Gwaelod. It is also thought that on a quiet day you can still hear the bells of Cantre’r Gwaelod under the sea.
“Although it is unlikely that such a place as Cantre’r Gwaelod ever actually existed, the story attempts to explain the natural phenomena of the area. This is what I find most captivating.”
DEVIL’S BRIDGE: A SOULFUL TALE OF DIABOLIC BUILDING AND A HUNGRY DOG
“There is a village called Devil’s Bridge in Ceredigion, Wales. An unusual bridge exists there on the outskirts of the village, where three separate structures are coexistent, each one built upon the previous. The most recent bridge was made of iron and constructed in 1901, created over a stone bridge (1753), which had itself been built when the original was thought unstable. The builders of the 1753 bridge used the original (built 1075–1200) to support scaffolding during construction.
“According to legend, the original bridge was in fact built by the Devil, as it was believed to be an impossible structure for mortals to build. The agreement stipulated that the Devil would build the bridge in return for the soul of the first living thing to cross the bridge. The Devil built the bridge, but was tricked by an old woman who threw bread onto the bridge. Her dog went after the bread, thus becoming the first life to cross the new bridge.
“It is said that the Devil was too embarrassed ever to return.”
IDENTITY AND TRADITION IN WELSH ARCHITECTURE
For Efa, the power of places is often held in the stories that surround them. Storytelling gives us emotional attachment and meaning in all aspects of our lives and it is this same narrative force at work when we identify with places of significance.
Given her strong feelings about the importance of Welsh mythology and influence of cultural lineage on sense of place, plus the buildings we create and cherish, you might automatically assume that Efa would be blindly flying the flag for the nation’s architectural heritage as a distinct and identifiable tradition. You would be wrong.
“I have often found myself in discussions on whether such a thing as ‘Welsh Architecture’ exists”, she explains. “In my experience, ‘Welsh Architecture’ can mean different things to different people: some would argue it is the whitewashed stone buildings that appear across the Celtic coasts; others would claim it is Welsh chapel architecture. The issue lies in the fact that almost all these buildings were built following the final English conquest of Wales in 1282. In truth, if someone were to look for an architecture which is inherently Welsh, without any external influences, they would struggle.
“It would be extremely difficult to design a modern Welsh architecture similar to the buildings pre-1282, without it seeming archaic. Furthermore, most of the existing buildings that are important to Wales and Welsh history – for instance The National Library, The National Museum in Cardiff, the Coal Exchange in Cardiff Bay and the Senedd – weren’t actually designed by Welsh architects, either.
“Ironically, my perception of what a modern Welsh architecture should be has been shaped by Charles Correa’s work in India, and his use of old patterns and ideas through the medium of modern architecture. His work doesn’t ignore the colonisation, but rather celebrates old ideas and patterns in contemporary ways. I think that the answer to a modern Welsh architecture could lie in the re-use of old patterns in modern techniques and forms.”
CONTINUITY FROM CONSTRUCTION TO CONSERVATION
One of Efa’s favourite architecture books is The Secret Life of Buildings by Edward Hollis, which talks about the metamorphosis of the built environment over time. It is perhaps this thread of cultural continuity running through from construction to conservation that helps underpin a sense of place and significance.
Ultimately, in her current role at Austin-Smith:Lord, Efa is in the happy position of being able to weave together the threads of her many influences and inspirations, from mythology to modern architecture:
“I am very inspired by the words and ideas of Dewi-Prys Thomas. He was a Welshman from Liverpool who was an architect, as well as being a writer, a tutor and a lecturer. I’m also very inspired by the storytelling within ‘The Millennium Centre’ in Cardiff Bay, and the power of the foyers within that space. I am now fortunate enough to work with some of the people who worked on that design. I admire Austin-Smith:Lord’s focus on conservation, and I adore their work on the Bluecoat in Liverpool and, more recently, the Ayr Gaiety Theatre.
Whether working on the earliest surviving building in Liverpool city centre, or the £2.4M renovation and remodelling of one Scotland’s oldest theatres, the team at Austin-Smith:Lord is able to draw upon a wealth of experience on a broad mix of schemes in their conservation portfolio. The Practice is just as happy engaged on proposals for the ruins of Tarbert Castle, as it is a converted Grade II Listed church in Pontypool, or the £1.6M adaptation of a more modern structure of cultural significance in the form of Newport Market Hall, complete with contemporary stained-glass installation.
Historical significance of a more personal kind saw Austin-Smith:Lord commissioned by Carmarthenshire Heritage Regeneration Trust to return the finest example of a Georgian Town House in Wales to its former 18th Century glory, not only turning Llanelly House into a major visitor attraction, but also the home of the National Centre for Genealogy, where visitors can uncover their own ancestral connections.
One project in the archives that Efa might particularly have liked to work on would be the celebrated National Botanic Garden of Wales, where, amongst other things, Austin-Smith:Lord converted a former cattle shed into a museum celebrating the legend of the Physicians of Myddfai.
This rich tapestry of varied building typography, cultural tradition and contemporary interpretation offers perhaps the perfect synthesis of living history to suit somebody in their early twenties, with an unlikely interest in folklore from previous millennia. Efa Lois Thomas seems to be in the right place to help bring inspiration to bear on projects to conserve and promote Welsh Heritage and Culture, plus at the same time write the next chapter in her own exciting life story.