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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

furtively.

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

outdoors."

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

setting.

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

mass communication.

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

renaissance.

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

Benchley’s essays.

"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

message combined.

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

27 feet.

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

dissolving?

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

effects.

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

aerus2320@yahoo.com

Sunrise Core Fusion and Pilates classes every Tuesday and

Thursday at 7 a.m.

Princeton Chamber Lemonade in the Park Networking

Thursday, August 19, at 5 p.m.

Reading for the Blind, with demonstration of recorded

books, date to be announced.

John Altman reads from his new book "The Watchman," date

to be announced.

Books Abroad, international experts on literacy and

health, date to be announced.

Jennifer Morgan reads from an unfinished manuscript, date

to be announced.

James McPherson talks about the Civil War, date to be

announced.


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