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A group of people sit outdoors on chairs in a semi circle around a brick structure with open sites

19 Jul 2021

One brick at a time, building with purpose

Architecture students and people with dementia came together to create a unique building full of meaning

Article by Ellie Robinson-Carter

One brick at a time, building with purpose

A few years ago, I received an unusual invite that immediately piqued my interest. ‘Come and make some bricks at our site in the clay country’.

What I didn’t know then was that years later I would be stood in a purpose-built brick structure inspired by our Happy Wanderers dementia friendly walking group.

What is Brickfields?

Brickfield is a community brickworks based in a disused clay pit in the heart of Cornwall’s china clay country. The brickmaking site is an oasis of creative activity set in the almost lunar landscape of clay spoil. Brickfield is working on empowering and enabling communities to build something that will improve their local environment and their feeling of belonging within it. Having been part of art and community projects for many years I have experienced first hand the benefits that projects like this can bring to people with dementia.

Enter the Happy Wanderers

The self-titled Happy Wanderers are an inspirational group. Formed in 2015 by the Sensory Trust they are made up of people with dementia, carers, ex-carers and volunteers. They are all from the clay country area and deeply connected to the landscape through which they walk, talk and encourage each other. The Wanderers are self-governing and always looking for new walks which are both rewarding and offer a space for creative agency and exploration.

A groups of five people sat on chairs outside talking and pointing

You can learn new skills at any stage of life

The brick invite was too tempting to pass off. An invitation to visit the Brickfield site in the heart of Cornwall’s china clay country, some lessons in clay brick making and a chance for everyone to make their own brick. The Happy Wanderers were keen to jump right in!

Before long the group were throwing clay into moulds and having a lot of fun in the process. There was grit, sand, clay and laughter filling the air – the physical process of throwing something and the surprise of how it turned out when you shimmied it out of the mould was invigorating!

Using the materials underfoot to create building blocks for a structure yet to be designed was the perfect example of taking something disused and giving it a whole new use.

Sharing experiences informs the design process

When lockdown hit in 2020 the Happy Wanderers, like many support groups were hit hard. Their weekly reason for getting and socialising was cancelled, and I felt the pressure to keep momentum and morale going. By good fortune Brickfield contacted me to say that they have designed a project with MA Architecture students at Falmouth University to continue their community work. Subsequently this became an important part of the remote support for the Happy Wanderers.

Over this time, the students connected with the Happy Wanderers over the phone and via post. They invited them to share their stories and experiences of walking along the clay trails. The students designed beautiful activity packs inviting the Happy Wanderers to use clay to reflect their own ideas and experiences of the clay trails, along with a host of creative activities to generate their individual responses to the landscapes.

Inspired by the varied and fascinating response from the walking group the students began to use these creative works to design structures which could be made and inserted somewhere along the clay trails.

Physical structures reflect personal experiences

In spring 2021 the students were able to bring these ideas to life and create a series of structures at Brickfield for the Happy Wanderers to see and judge. The winner would be placed in a location in the clay country that is significant to the Happy Wanderers.

The day the structures were unveiled to the walking group was quite emotional. The students had recognised the integral support system of the Happy Wanderers, and thus there were canopies of bricks and gathering spaces to encourage and reflect this.

There were areas for bricks and plants to be inserted, as a way of remembering those members who are sadly no longer part of the group, and areas to make a fire and enjoy a cup of tea together whilst sheltering from the Cornish rain.

This intergenerational co-production is a fantastic example of how people living with dementia can take active roles in design and community initiatives. We look forward to continuing our partnership with Brickfield and can’t wait to see what the future holds!

Two structures made of bricks

Image credit: James Darling