‘I’m an advocate of the temporary. It allows people to take risks. Temporary averts the collision of people holding out for their full solution. It allows people to suspend their objections and permits a sense of wonderment to begin.”
Kevin Wilkes has all the credentials of a highly practical man: a Princeton-trained architect (Class of 1983), owner of his own construction company (the Princeton Design Guild), and former building inspector for Princeton Township. But he is also co-founder of Writer’s Block and Quark Park — two highly whimsical and temporary gardens built on a long-vacant lot in downtown Princeton.
The idea of transforming a vacant lot in downtown Princeton destined to be bulldozed for a housing project was a bright idea in itself. Making it happen was the result of other bright ideas.
Not surprisingly, Wilkes had help, especially from Peter Soderman, a landscaper who brought an artist’s sensibility to his projects. “Peter Soderman and I were team catalysts for both projects,” says Wilkes. “Maybe I cracked the whip and paid the bills and designed the overall site plans, but Peter cajoled and wheedled when necessary and imagined the lush landscape enclosures. Neither one of us could have pulled off either project without the other’s fullest commitment and passion.”
Not even a vacant lot surrounded by chain link fence can deter Soderman’s imagination. “You can grow anything out of a garden — soy beans, sunflowers, Elijah blue fescue, or a grass roots movement,” says Soderman. “You can eventually grow a Quark Park or a Writer’s Block as well.
“Once you understand the subterranean gift of dirt and its alchemy, you give it a little poetry, some water, and then some light. The plants and the people rise together. I am a companion-planting, sorcering mad man to the core, and whether it be green zebra tomatoes planted with Italian basil, novelists with architects, or scientists with sculptors, germination is universal.
“Our town and its surrounding hinterland is an intellectual powder keg looking for another light. Princeton and the U.S. 1 corridor are a corporate, academic, human heirloom seed catalog. New Jersey is the Garden State. This is the future. What sunlight has promised to us, we should be growing. We should be leading. All I need is land.”
Peter Soderman, a self-taught “landscape artist,” is also a self-described “ideas catalyst. Someone providing templates for others’ creations.” Looking around and seeing ugly bare spots in Princeton’s otherwise manicured townscape, Soderman had the idea to unite seemingly disparate concepts into temporary gardens of creativity on unused or undeveloped plots of land.
Soderman played football for Princeton High School in the late-1960s, and then attended community college and Florida State prior to a stint as a seminarian. Nothing quite fit, and 15 years ago, realizing that what he really loved was making things grow, he began a career in landscaping. He formed his own Princeton-based company, Bohemian Grove, in 2001.
His imaginative spark was, he says, little more than realizing “something had to be done” with bare lots that stand undisturbed for months and years at a clip, between the time some structure is felled and the time a new one takes its place. The Princeton native’s first effort in 2000 was Herban Garden, a lush redesigning of the yard at Witherspoon Bread Company, commissioned by the bakery’s owners, the Momo brothers.
Having wowed visitors to Herban Garden, Soderman revisited an idea that had been rattling around in his brain for nearly a decade for the site on Paul Robeson Place, between Witherspoon and Chambers streets and just behind the Hulfish Street garage.
That idea became Writer’s Block, a 15,000-square-foot garden of creative delights that combined the talents of Princeton’s writing and architectural communities. Princeton architects, such as Sharon McHugh, Andrew Outerbridge, and Peter Morgan, constructed structures and themes based on some of Princeton’s noted writers, such as poet Paul Muldoon and novelists Peter Benchley and Joyce Carol Oates.
Over the course of eight years or so, the fenced-in plot behind the garage had garnered trash, weeds, and continuous bickering between borough officials, the Palmer Square Management Corporation, which owned the plot, and various builders.
Writer’s Block lasted four months in 2004 and came down in ceremonious style on Halloween. Writer’s Block led in 2006 to the more ambitious Quark Park on the same site. Soderman and Wilkes developed the park with landscape architect Alan Goodheart, turning the lot into a dazzling light show and large sculpture garden that celebrated art, science, mathematics, architecture, and landscape design.
Soderman, Wilkes, and Goodheart tapped the brains of such scientists as Shirley Tilghman, president of Princeton University, Freeman Dyson of the Institute for Advanced Study, and Paul Schimmel of Scripps Research Institute and combined them with the talents of artists and architects, such as sculptor Nancy Cohen, architect Joshua Zinder, and kinetic sculptor Rein Triefeldt.
Bringing these disparate characters together was the challenge for Wilkes. The son of a Shell Oil engineer and an interior decorator mother, Wilkes grew up in a “charmed childhood” in Manhattan and later moved to North Jersey with his parents, where they built two new houses and renovated another. His engineering and designer genes were augmented by another youthful pursuit: theatrical set design. That experience fostered another practical skill: collaboration. “Whenever I organize one of these big projects,” Wilkes says, “people ask how can I get 10 architects to work together when most architects are miserable working together.” The answer is the theater experience.
Since Writer’s Block and Quark Park, Wilkes has also been active in Princeton Future and has been elected to Princeton Borough Council. Among other goals he shared with reporters: “We need to improve mass transit, find strategies to improve bus service, and find ways to improve transit along the dinky corridor.” Watch out for some creative but also practical proposals.