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This article by Bart Jackson was prepared for the August 18, 2004
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A Folly – Where Architects and Artists Converge
Peter Soderman leans a large forearm against the door frame of the old
cedar barn. Meditatively he traces the scars of the adz which hewed
these timbers four years before Lewis and Clark headed west to explore
the Louisiana Purchase. "Two centuries ago," he ponders out loud,
"people gathered under this roof. What did they say? What did they
think? How did they suffer?"
Soderman wonders about such things. Tall and lanky, he ambles in
heavy, unlaced work boots with the air of a thinker. He is not an
historian, psychologist, or philosopher – not professionally at least.
A self-taught landscape architect, he prefers to see himself as "an
ideas catalyst – someone providing templates for others’ creations."
A Princeton native, 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, three years ago.
Soderman’s latest template cuts a 15,000 square-foot green swath
beneath his mother’s window in the center of downtown Princeton. Just
take a walk down Witherspoon Street, past the new library, and turn
left on Paul Robeson Place. There you will find the garden dubbed
Writers Block, a pretty little editing of nature, which invites the
combined talents of both Princeton’s writing and architectural
communities. The community will celebrate its presence this Thursday,
August 19, with a networking event at 5 pm for the Princeton Chamber
of Commerce. The official grand opening is Saturday, September 11.
"The garden has renewed something from nothing," says Princeton
resident Sheldon Sturges, who leads a citizens’ group dedicated to
revitalizing Princeton’s downtown core. "The follies are a quiet place
to meditate or converse with others."
Concentric sweeps of tall sweet corn, shorter feed corn, and low
colorful zinnias provide the creative canvas. Within this field, 12
teams of architects and writers have been provided a 10 by 12 foot
space to erect a "folly" – some clever structure that tangibly blends
the author’s mind or soul with the builder’s art. Acting as the main
garden entrance, the 18th century cedar barn, a donation by the
Ringoes-based New Jersey Barn Company, sets the mood.
Soderman invites me to walk through the barn – "the vestibule into my
field of dreams," as he puts it. Amid the corn, the follies stand in
various states of construction with dozens of people laboring
throughout. All the work and all the materials are donated. Many of
the workers are from Princeton or are trainees from the New Jersey
Institute of Technology. "Even though American individuality balks at
the idea, there is a real beauty in service," remarks Soderman. I
notice that among all these busy builders, there blares not one
thought-deadening boombox in the background.
We walk to a strange looking wooden wall, which architects Terry Smith
and Juliet Richardson and a small crew of volunteers are decorating
with a jumble of various odd-shaped plates. They have teamed up with
poet Paul Muldoon. During their interviews with him, Muldoon had
commented that, "writing is like chemistry and physics. You
experiment; mix the right words and sometimes it goes ‘Pooof!’" This
nugget sparked the idea in Smith and Richardson to experiment with
various elements of light and shade on the wall to see if the effect
also would go poof. They combine, then combine again. As Mark Twain
said, the difference between a good word and the exact right word is
the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.
Ladening their folly with more interest and imagery, Richardson and
Smith have taken a page from George Bernard Shaw and have made their
wall similar to the playwright’s own garden writing shed, even
including the rotating base that Shaw’s had. Topping off utter folly,
the crest resembles an ancient Roman lookout post. Symbolism lurks
Beside Muldoon’s folly sits an odd looking stack of wooden freight
pallets placed on edge. Together they form a high wall rigidly
guarding a small wooden patio with a rather flimsy lawn chair. The
entire fortress keeps nature at bay as much as possible. This
offering, created from the imagination of architect M.J. Sagan, is a
testament to humorist Fran Leibowitz, titled simply, "Why I hate the
Peering into Joyce Carol Oates’ structure, one spies an odd piece of
sheet metal chained to a swivel, reminiscent of a coal chute and
tippling runway. Architect teammate Gil Rampy contacted Oates,
listened to her discuss her latest work "Faith of a Writer," and had a
brief chat about the project.
Oates, herself an ardent runner who literally creates on her feet,
told Rampy about the struggle of the writer, like the laborer, to
bring forth product and sew in the thread of meaning. Rampy envisioned
an analogy of author and character, placing the soul of each in his
As we continue our tour, Soderman explains some of the uses he hopes
for his field of dreams. Perhaps the most important aspect is that
Writers Block is mortal. From its beginning with June groundbreaking,
it will remain only four months, ending on October 31 with a Halloween
closing ceremony. At that point, various follies will be auctioned
off, allowing the donors to recoup a piece of their costs, with the
remainder donated to selected New Jersey charities.
"I see this as sort of a literary Woodstock," says the garden’s
author. "It’s interesting how many of the people contributing to this
creation are of that generation." Soderman, who graduated from
Princeton High School in the mid-1960s, envisions Writers Block as an
island, filling the spiritual void created by mass consumerism and
A noble vision indeed. But behind every man’s vision it usually takes
a woman or two pushing it all to fruition. Enter project coordinator
Dana Lichtstrahl. Having joined the Writers Block team early last
spring, Lichtstrahl saw the garden’s potential as a stage for not just
contemplations, but a myriad of artistic activities.
Herself the author of two books, "Will My Real Family Please Stand Up"
and "In Good Company," she fell in with Soderman’s plans and brought
her own training to bear. Her seven years as a graphic artist for the
"Good Morning America" show gave Lichtstrahl a fine feel for
presentation and for how to lure participants into events.
To help fill the four-month calendar, Lichtstrahl contacted events
expert Hope Van Cleaf who had just finished a long fund raising stint
as development assistant at Princeton’s YWCA. Together these women
have scheduled a host of both recurring and one-time special events
that give tangible meaning to Soderman’s hope for a spiritual
Walking to the far left, Soderman and I pause before a looming pagoda
conceived by architects Andrew Outerbridge and Peter Morgan to fulfill
the awesome scope of Princeton novelist Peter Benchley’s works.
Benchley’s books, "Jaws," "The Deep," and "The Island," among others,
direct his readers to the sweeping power of nature. At the same time,
the amazing variety of his works and progressively different angles
provide an analogy to nature’s endless diversity, discussed in
"One night I was looking at a dollar bill," says architect Ron Berlin
as he comes to join us. "My eye fell upon the strong pyramid and I
began thinking about that symbol." Berlin was teamed with one of his
favorite authors, Paul Krugman, Princeton University professor of
economics and political commentator for the New York Times Op-ed page.
Unable to directly interview Krugman, Berlin took inspiration from the
author’s political and economic writings.
In studying his dollar, Berlin realized that the pyramid was
unfinished, and saw this as a symbol of Krugman’s message that we, as
a democracy, must ever keep reconfiguring ourselves. The Krugman
pyramid comes to life thanks to the efforts of builder Tom Pinneo, who
has hand crafted mortise and tenon joints for its frame. Beauty and a
Amidst all the wooden structures glares the contrasting vision of
political philosopher Cornel West and architects Sharon McHugh and
John Nastasi. At first view, the shiny metallic silo appears solid and
imposing. Upon closer inspection, one discovers an aluminum honeycomb,
stretched into an alluring spiral. Interestingly, the honeycomb has
been stretched, very carefully, from a 2 1/2-inch cake to its current
West, prolific writer on race relations and the American black
experience, reviewed the plans and responded with his thoughts.
Together, he and his architect partners sought to blend race relations
with architecture. The spiral makes the observer wonder, "am I inside,
outside, or just transparent on the surface?" Are the barriers
Soderman ticks off the other teams on his fingers: playwright Emily
Mann combined with architect Ralph Lerner; Princeton University
ethicist Peter Singer and architect Peter Wasem; political writer Paul
Sigmund with architect John James Rivera; novelist Chang-rae Lee
linked with James Chavel and Chloe Town; and historian James McPherson
has been teamed with Kevin Wilkes of the Princeton Design Group, site
coordinator of the Writers Block project. As an homage, just outside
the garden perimeter stands a tribute to Chilean poet Pablo Neruda
erected by Leslie Dowling.
"Not all the writers have taken a personal hand in their projects,"
notes Soderman. "In fact, many just have just lent their names and
some basic thoughts to the project and let the architects run with it.
But those who haven’t worked with the architects will be both
flattered and amazed, I’m sure."
Writers Block has existed in Soderman’s mind for nearly a decade.
"Princeton has more writers and more architects per capita than any
town in the nation," he kept thinking. "There has to be a way to bring
them together." Then the venue became free.
For the past eight years, the fenced-in plot behind the Hulfish Street
Garage had garnered trash, weeds, and no end of controversy. Borough
officials, the Palmer Square Management Corporation, and various
builders had warred over the land, reaching no agreement. Soderman and
his landscaping company, Bohemian Grove, had already delighted the
residents of Princeton with the Herban Garden in the backyard of the
Witherspoon Bread Company. It has made an impressive nook for the
bakery’s outdoor catered events.
"The Momo Brothers really let me totally create on their land, and it
gave me credibility in this area," Soderman says, speaking of the
owners of the Witherspoon Bread Company.
With this project receiving favorable reviews, last February Soderman
approached David Newton, vice president of Palmer Square Management,
asking to temporarily place a garden on the fallow land. Newton loved
the idea at once. "He couldn’t have been more gracious and helpful. He
has given us every access," says Soderman.
"I only agreed to the project," Newton remarks with a chuckle, "with
the absolute confidence that it would never get off the ground. But
now it has and I am delighted." Shortly before the project began,
Newton found himself on a drive up through Spanish Harlem in
Manhattan. He remembers lot after lot of ugly trash heaps. "But then,
he says, "you would come across one where the community had labored
and made something out of it. I recall the cleverness and creativity
of these efforts, making beauty out of waste." The idea stuck and
Newton’s Palmer Square Management Corporation agreed to let Writers
Block bloom on its property.
From there, momentum grew. "Kevin Wilkes came riding out of the
Sourland Mountains like a white knight in a pickup truck," laughs
Soderman. He brought with him the entire volunteer power of the
Princeton Design Guild to the project. Wilkes joined Writers Block as
site coordinator, which affords him the chance to be everything from
construction boss to helping hand. Additionally, Wilkes has teamed up
with Civil War writer James McPherson and has created a period battle
scene in a folly.
Growing up as a white boy in Georgia, Wilkes felt he was raised with a
particularly skewed idea of "The War of Northern Aggression." He
attended Princeton University, graduating with an architecture degree
in l983, but never found the time to take a class from history
professor McPherson. Yet Wilkes has avidly read the historian’s works
and is continually impressed by his insights.
McPherson’s "Battle Cry of Freedom," notes Wilkes, shows just how far
a country can go to promote tremendous savagery in the name of freedom
and nationhood. The pillared tent of his folly subtly contrasts the
industrialized North with the crumbling South – complete with sound
By early April, the energetic Lichtstrahl had signed on, taking the
eclectic title of project coordinator. She joined Soderman in making
cold calls to the authors, asking if they would like to join the
project. "These were all famous and very busy writers," says Soderman.
"At first I felt a little like a combination of Rasputin and P.T.
Barnum invading these peoples’ lives."
But almost all the authors proved remarkably receptive. Lichtstrahl
remembers finally getting hold of novelist Peter Benchley and
enthusiastically gushing out her entire Writers Block spiel. "All
right, Dana, it’s okay," said the besieged Benchley. "I’m on board
with this. You can stop now." Everyone seemed to love the concept.
Lichtstrahl soon brought Van Cleaf to the team, rounding out the
founding four. Landscape architect Alan Goodheart, with Soderman and
Wilkes, designed the landscape plan. It was his concept that the
outside ring of follies amid corn should hem a weave of flat lawn,
providing the feel of strollable space.
"The whole Writers Block is a bizarre scheme that dwells in people’s
hearts," sums up Lichtstrahl. Somehow, in this garden, every one is an
artist and every one is a contributor. Like the many hands that helped
raise the garden’s aged barn, people have caught the fervor of
creativity and perhaps that is as great a gift as any profound
thoughts it will inspire.
Sometime in the future, the 15,000 square feet of respite that was
Writers Block will be supplanted with 97 luxury townhouses in a
development to be called "Palmer Square’s Hulfish North." Pouring a
concrete footprint over this nurturing garden might strike some as
spiritual heresy. But the Soderman, Wilkes, Goodheart, Lichtstrahl,
and Van Cleaf team are resolute in their optimism. Art comes in the
creation and in the brief enjoying; not in the petrification. After
all, who knows what visions the fertile fields of Princeton’s talent
will bring to life next year?
Writers Block Calendar. Many scheduled events in the garden can be
found on the website www.princetonwritersblock.com. Inquiries about
unscheduled events can be made to Hope Van Cleaf at
Thursday at 7 a.m.
Thursday, August 19, at 5 p.m.
books, date to be announced.
to be announced.
Books Abroad, international experts on literacy and
health, date to be announced.
to be announced.
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