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Something & Son: London bricks and more

"That’s the nature of London – it’s always changing. That's what makes it a great city."

Just like Alice, yes the one who fell down the rabbit hole, Andrew Merritt and Paul Smyth, cofounders of Something & Son, have an insatiable curiosity about the world and all the wonderful people who wander it. And, like Lewis Carroll’s intrepid heroine, they’re also not afraid to experiment and collaborate to realise their work.

The artists’ most recent projects have seen them bringing together gardeners and foodies in Istanbul, as well as working alongside horticulturalists and scientists at Kew Gardens. In the latter project they’re exploring the nature of soil and trying to recreate it from scratch.

Previous work has seen them bringing communities together by creating 3D printed trees, designing sustainable, easy-to-manufacture lamps out of glue, and building a natural sauna on a hillside in Kinsale, Ireland.

Something & Son are now bringing their eclectic, collaborative and community-driven vision to Greenwich Peninsula with their latest work “People’s Brick Company”. Andy Merritt talked to The Peninsulist.

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Andy Merritt and Paul Smyth, Something & Son. Photograph: Charles Emerson

What inspired your project on Greenwich Peninsula?

Our research into the area revealed that Greenwich Peninsula was originally called ‘Over Brickfield’ and that the first buildings there were made from the very clay they stood on.
 We liked the idea of bringing it back down to how mass building started in London – brick by brick, handmade and laborious – a complete contrast to today’s high tech architecture and building.

We want to revive the clay quarrying and brickmaking process that occurred on the Peninsula for many years. There used to be dozens, if not hundreds, of mini-quarries, each dug up and used to build a single dwelling. The idea is to put architecture back into the hands of the people and show how simple it can be.

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The hand-moulded bricks will be air dried at the NOW Gallery. Photograph: Charles Emerson

So how simple will it be?

Easy enough for anyone to take part, regardless of age. We’ll be creating an overland quarry onsite so anyone who wants to make a brick will be able to trot down with a wheelbarrow and collect clay. They’ll then bring their clay back to the NOW Gallery, and will be instructed on how to handmake and personalise their brick.

The bricks will be stockpiled and dried inside the gallery on special drying racks, created using waste wood from the building sites nearby. By the end of the summer we’re hoping to have between 3,000 and 5,000 bricks. We’ll then use them to build a kiln and fire all the bricks for three to four days, by burning the waste wood from the drying racks.

Finally the finished bricks will be used to create a folly on the Peninsula. Everything comes full circle and is used to its maximum capacity. It will be a sort of monument to the brickmaking processes of the past and a last opportunity to mine and use the local clay before it disappears beneath the new structures being built.

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By the end of the summer Something & Son are hoping to have between 3,000 and 5,000 bricks made by people visiting and living on the Peninsula. Photograph: Charles Emerson

You’ve worked with everything from soil, rocks, plants and wood, to PLA, steel, acrylic and light. Is there a material that’s intrinsically linked with London?

Bricks! London brick is iconic. No other city – except maybe New York with its brownstone – has such a strong association with a material. Part of the reason is that, for the most part, London sits on clay so it makes sense that this abundance has been widely used to create the city’s buildings.

As a city of art and artists what’s the one thing London could do better?

Housing. An Englishman’s home is his castle – but not in London. 10% of London’s population moves around every year. The cost of housing is pushing people out of London, specifically artists and other creative people since many of them don’t earn a lot. Unfortunately this will mean that London will lose one of its most distinctive characteristics – its incredible diversity.

Not just ethnic diversity but economic diversity too. It would be great if we could use architecture to find a way to allow people to expand and adapt their spaces to suit their changing needs.

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Photograph: Charles Emerson

And what does London do best?

Its art schools. London has an extraordinary amount of really good, thriving art schools. All very conceptual and pioneering. They’re the bedrock of the city’s incredible art scene. However, with university fees increasing all the time it’s becoming very expensive to study. This could affect who can attend. But then that’s the nature of London – it’s always changing. And that’s what makes it a great city.

Favourite part of London?

Stepney Green. It’s right next to Whitechapel, but people don’t really know about it – it’s off their radar. You get that small town or village lifestyle but you’re in a fantastic central location, in one of the biggest, busiest cities in the world. Connected to but not consumed by the city. And in a way this thread runs through our work. We create many ‘local’, site-specific pieces. But they still get a great amount of international recognition – people identify with the work, as there’s always a human relevance that connects communities and brings people together.

Similarly, curator Jemima Burrill says that she wants NOW Gallery to be a catalyst for the continuously evolving Greenwich Peninsula site, bringing together designers and artists: “…to create exhibitions which are playful, inspiring and bring our unconventional gallery space to life. Thinking outside the box is key for any of our commissions; we want to give new and emerging artists and designers an opportunity to think wide, and see how design/art can integrate itself into Greenwich Peninsula in an exciting way.”

Something & Son’s ‘People’s Brick Company’ is on 24th of June to 18th September at the NOW Gallery, Greenwich Peninsula. Come down to make and add your brick to this wonderful project.