Creativity flourishes in Writers Block Garden

by Jennifer Greenstein Altmann
An empty lot in the borough of Princeton has been transformed into a stunning garden filled with inventive structures that pay tribute to several University professors.

The Writers Block Garden is the brainchild of landscape architect Peter Soderman who, while walking by the site one day, lamented the fact that it had been empty for eight years.

As he dreamed about transforming the space into a garden, he thought of the preponderance of writers and architects who live in Princeton and an idea was born: "Let's bring the architectural community and the writer's community together, stir up a serendipitous pot and see what develops," Soderman said.

The lot on Paul Robeson Place, between Chambers and Witherspoon streets, now has structures dedicated to Princeton professors Paul Krugman, James McPherson, Paul Muldoon, Joyce Carol Oates, Paul Sigmund, Peter Singer and Cornel West.

"The Writers Block Garden is a wonderfully imaginative, if not unique addition to Princeton," said Oates.

There also are tributes to Peter Benchley, Fran Lebowitz, Emily Mann and Pablo Neruda. Each writer collaborated with an architect or team of architects to create the pavilions. Many of the architects involved have connections with Princeton's School of Architecture as alumni or faculty members.

The structure in honor of Muldoon is a small wooden pavilion with benches inside it and a facade of interchangeable wall panels that have different degrees of opacity. The entire structure can be easily rotated.

"It's fantastic," Muldoon said. "One of my favorite garden sheds was George Bernard Shaw's. His main interest was to have a rotating shed, and his was set around an old pipe. As the day progressed he could move it around with the sun. He did most of his writing in the shed."

The architects, Princeton alumni Juliet Richardson and Terence Smith, were inspired by Muldoon's view of poetry "as a combination of chemistry and physics."

"The world of architecture and poetry is ever changing — each encounter a reinvention, deriving its meaning from the unique experiences of the inhabitant/reader, the hour of witness, the season, the time of day," the architects wrote on a plaque explaining their project.

"People tend to forget that poems are structures themselves," Muldoon said. "That's all the word 'poem' means — a 'made' thing. I'm always interested in anything that reminds people of that," Muldoon said.

The pavilion honoring Krugman, a professor of economics and international affairs who writes a regular column for The New York Times, is a pyramid made of cedar trunks and oak timbers with a glass eye perched on top, mimicking the design on the back of a dollar bill. The hut dedicated to McPherson, a Civil War scholar, has the image of a flag on the wooden floor. The columns on the south side have speakers playing "Dixie" while those on the north play a rap song.

The garden is serving as a place for contemplation and exploration as well as a gathering spot for community events like poetry readings and a craft show. It also is a bridge between the community and the University: There will be a party for Princeton students at 4 p.m. Friday, Sept. 10, and a community party, open to everyone, at 1 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 12.

"I think it's very important that writers and other artists have an interest in the community they live in and work out of," Muldoon said.

The garden will exist until Oct. 31, when it will be dismantled to make way for the construction of townhouses. The structures will be auctioned off, with the proceeds (after expenses) going to charity.

 

Structures in the downtown Writers Block Garden pay tribute to several Princeton faculty members, including, from front to back, Cornel West, Paul Krugman and Paul Muldoon.

Joyce Carol Oates called the Writers Block "a wonderfully imaginative" addition to the Princeton community.

photos: John Jameson

 

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