Design: Little by little, piece by piece

Close by the design monstrosity that is the Elephant and Castle shopping centre, the Only Connect project has enabled young people with severe learning disabilities to conjure a mosaic wonderworld out of dereliction .
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The Independent Culture
Beyond the hideous pink facade of the Elephant and Castle, enveloped in a noisome pall of south London exhaust fumes, lies a wonderful mosaic garden. Created out of the land that lies behind a row of Georgian houses, the garden is part of Cambridge House, a voluntary sector organisation set up over a century ago to alleviate the effects of poverty in Southwark and which nowadays offers a variety of services ranging from legal aid and a youth centre to groups for people with learning disabilities, social events and council meetings.

The once desolate and abandoned garden has been brilliantly brought back to life with a 50-foot mosaic depicting an underwater world. Coloured fish leap from mirrored waves on the walls. An octopus sculpture forms a mosaic rockery in one corner, while a seven-foot starfish adorns another. The combination of deep sea-blues and sparkling mirrors creates a small oasis of calm and tranquillity in this busy inner-city area.

Over 400 people a week use Cambridge House and wander through the garden. The mosaic is admired not only for its beautiful designs but also because of its history. It was created entirely by people with severe learning disabilities under the aegis of Only Connect, one of Cambridge House's projects. Only Connect works to promote equal opportunities for people with Downs syndrome, autism, fragile-X syndrome and other severe learning disabilities. Its projects all have a dual focus: they provide a safe and exciting forum for play, education, art or sport activities, and also offering a respite for the parents and carers of people with severe learning disabilities. Other activities include holiday play schemes, after school clubs, weekend breakaways, and life skills workshops.

The mosaic garden project involved 75 children and young people with severe learning disabilities working alongside artists and volunteers trained by Only Connect to enable and support them. Creative art provides a vital means of communication for people who may have limited speech and find everyday self-expression difficult.

It is a challenging but extremely rewarding process. The aim is to help individuals to express their own ideas, and the mosaic garden at Cambridge House reflects this way of working. It can be seen as a single image or a composite of many different pictures. Each participant's individual contribution can be identified: the placing of a tile, the exploration of a colour scheme, a pattern created from a particular design.

Only Connect always ensures that its arts workshops are well-resourced, and that the people taking part have an opportunity to work with high- quality materials and equipment. The garden project showed participants how sketches could lead to a finished design, how to use specialist tools like tile cutters and electric drills, and how to lay the mosaic and mix the cement adhesive. Italian glass mosaic tiles and domestic ceramic tiles were used; much of this material was donated by London's specialist tile shops.

The garden project was awarded a Shell Better Britain Award, and financed through a variety of small trusts and charities. It success is due to its vision and ambition: it celebrates the fact that people with learning disabilities make a valuable contribution to our way of life, and challenges the view that they are a burden on society.

Only Connect runs regular Art & Design Curriculum Support workshops at special schools supported by the London Borough of Southwark, and is committed to the use of art both as a means of expression for people with learning disabilities and as an aesthetic contribution to the wider community.

If you would like to volunteer or find out more about the work of Only Connect or Cambridge House please contact them on 0171-703 5025