Sukkah City

I have been reading about Sukkah City, a gathering of 11 sukkahs in New York’s Union Square. Sukkahs are those wonderful structures made for eating outdoors in during the Jewish harvest festival, Sukkot. Traditionally made with sticks and twine, they are supposed to be open to the stars. Although I’m not an observant Jew, I always thought Sukkot was the coolest Jewish holiday.

The writer Joshua Foer developed the idea for Sukkah City, an architectural competition that resulted in 11 structures being installed in Union Square last week. “They were architectural fun houses, one-offs made from stunty materials like giant bubble wrap, long spiky reeds, cardboard signs hand-lettered by homeless people, huge panes of glass balanced perilously on edge and what looked like a million jumbo clothespins reaching to the sky,” wrote Ariel Kaminer in The New York Times.

And it made me remember Writers Block, that wonderful project by Peter Soderman and Kevin Wilkes back in 2005, with architectural follies made for Princeton’s writers by Princeton’s architects. Here’s what I wrote about Writers Block back then:

Just as a leaf might twirl from a tree, a piece of paper appears out of nowhere on one of the gravel paths of Writers Block. Someone picks it up, passes it to someone else, and eventually it falls into the hands of Kevin Wilkes and Peter Soderman.

“This is the most beautiful place on earth,” is scrawled on the porous sheet, with sprocket holes torn from a spiral notepad. It’s what Mr. Soderman refers to as “spiritual synchronicity,” and to what he attributes the growth of Writers Block, an extraordinary undertaking he modestly deflects credit for.

In the heart of Princeton Borough, Writers Block is a garden where 11 teams of architects and writers have collaborated to create pavilions, or “follies” – small structures that may be architecture, or sculpture, or both. They “instigate contemplation and the pursuit of one’s thoughts… an artistic garden of earthly delights,” says the Writers Block Web site. Plans are in the works for readings, arts events, Pilates classes and more.

“It’s OK to be corny here,” says Mr. Soderman, surrounded by cornstalks as high as an elephant’s eye – and nearly as tall as Mr. Soderman himself, who must have to crouch in spaces where the ceiling is less than 7 feet. His partners give him the thumbs down on the corn joke.

The former empty lot on Princeton’s Paul Robeson Place – the last part of Palmer Square earmarked for development – is buzzing with activity. Site planners Alan Goodheart, Mr. Wilkes and Mr. Soderman talk about how the dream became a reality. Mr. Goodheart is a landscape architect, Mr. Wilkes is an architect and Mr. Soderman makes it clear he does not want to be called a landscape architect.

“I’m just a guy in a pickup truck… with the wrong phone number on it,” says the self-described “child of the ’60s.” “I make garden art.”

Bohemian Grove, Mr. Soderman’s “garden art” company, is also responsible for the Herban Garden, behind Witherspoon Bread Co.

The Herban Garden began four years ago when Carlo Momo, co-owner with his brother, Raoul, of Terra Momo, thought about having a kitchen garden behind Witherspoon Bread Co. Terra Momo owns the bread store, Teresa’s CafĂ© Italiano and Mediterra in Princeton, as well as restaurants in New Brunswick and Colorado.

Mr. Soderman came to Mr. Momo’s attention because of a memorial garden he had designed for Princeton Montessori School, where Mr. Momo’s children were students. “I just wanted heirloom tomatoes and herbs,” says Mr. Momo. “I was shopping around for someone with experience in organic gardens. It evolved into what you see today, a showcase garden.”

” ‘Don’t ask for permission and beg for forgiveness’ – it’s the philosophy Carlo taught me, and I just kept going,” says Mr. Soderman, who studied survival skills with Tom Brown Jr., author of 16 books on survival, including The Tracker.

“We just clicked right away,” says Mr. Momo. “He’s an extremely creative guy. We gave him license – ‘Yeah, make it beautiful’ – and every year it grows more and more. Writers Block was an extension of that because the Herban Garden was tapped out.”

Palmer Square Management has given permission for the project to remain through Oct. 31, but it must all come down the following day. The follies will be auctioned off, with money raised going to charities of the authors’ choosing.

“I’ve always had a desire to create medicine places, where there’s social, spiritual and intellectual interaction,” says Mr. Soderman. “If you build it they will come.” An avid reader, Mr. Soderman says he was inspired by Jack Kerouac’s 1950s Beat classic, On the Road.

“Peter approached me late last year with the concept,” says Mr. Momo. “I said, ‘Peter, it’s a great idea, but I don’t think I can take it on financially or organizationally.’”

Mr. Soderman says he made about 100 cold calls to assemble the team. “I got a lot of long silences at the end of the line. The day I called Kevin (Wilkes), everything changed. I found my engine – a guy with a logistical capability, indefatigable enthusiasm and vigilant realism. It’s been a wonderful leap with great, smart optimistic people.”


Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Paul Muldoon helped to get the ball rolling. “Paul is a lot of fun,” says Mr. Soderman. “His initial enthusiasm gave us fuel to go forward.” Mr. Muldoon helped bring colleagues Joyce Carol Oates and Chang-rae Lee on board.

“We hosted an organizational lunch with Paul, Alan (Goodheart), Kevin, Dana Lichstrahl and Palmer Square Management,” says Mr. Momo. “At the meeting Peter hooked up with Kevin. Peter’s full of great ideas that are sometimes hard to realize. Kevin got so into it, he dug into his own pockets (to pay interns from New Jersey Institute of Technology). That’s what this whole community concept is.”

“The interns are the backbone of the installation,” says Mr. Wilkes. “They did the rototilling, spreading the soil, planting the corn, the gravel walks… and assisted the individual teams.” Besides the interns, all other efforts are volunteer, and the architectural teams were responsible for their own fund-raising.

An old water tower with a newly shingled roof sits at the entrance, and a recreated barn from the New Jersey Barn Co. offers a portal into the network of paths that lead to the structures.

Out front is a copper-clad folly designed for Pablo Neruda by Leslie Dowling, Carlo Momo’s wife. “We chose him because it is the centennial of his birth,” says the restaurateur. “In his elemental ode, he refers to specific ingredients – the onion, tomato, artichokes and wine… You need to eat in many ways.” Mr. Neruda is the only writer represented without a Princeton connection.

Mr. Wilkes has designed a folly for pre-eminent Civil War scholar James McPherson. Made from recycled materials, it is held up by four columns from Princeton residences. The two on the north side were from a solar house built by the Princeton Energy Group in the late 1970s, and two fluted white wooden ones, originally from the director’s house at the Institute for Advanced Study, hold up the South. An American flag is burned into the base, and speakers on the South play Dixie while the North plays rap songs about slavery by Public Enemy.

“I wanted to have that cacophony,” says Mr. Wilkes. “You couldn’t turn those battles off,” just as the speakers can’t be turned off.

Religious gargoyles on the outside of the folly are a reminder that both sides believed God was on their side, says Mr. Wilkes.

In most cases, authors collaborated on the designs. Architect Gil Rampy says he approached Joyce Carol Oates after a lecture at the Princeton University Store, and she said she would “leave it to the professionals.”

Mr. Muldoon worked closely with architects Juliet Richardson and Terry Smith to come up with a rotating design with removable panels. They got together to discuss their ideas at Small World Coffee, where Mr. Muldoon made the following inspirational remark: “I think of poetry as a combination of chemistry and physics.”

“We wanted to find a way through architecture to explore space the way Paul uses words to explore a poem,” says Mr. Smith.

Mr. Muldoon made Richardson-Smith Architects aware of a writer’s hut George Bernard Shaw had built in his garden. It could be rotated to change the view and the quality of light.

The resulting design has removable panels that allow light to enter with different environment effects, says Mr. Smith. Made of metal, canvas, Plexiglas or wood, the panels have designs that alter the quality of the light.

Atop the pavilion is a groma, a horizontal cross set on a vertical staff that is the axis on which the whole structure rotates. Roman town planners would use a groma to help orient the layout of cities.

Inside the folly, titled “Experimental Pavilion One,” is a bench where an author can sit and write.

MJ Sagan’s design for Fran Lebowitz is based on The Fran Lebowitz Reader and on a brief conversation Ms. Sagan had with the author. Ms. Sagan’s design is centered on Ms. Lebowitz’s dislike of nature and the outdoors. Ms. Lebowitz wrote that outdoors is “a place you must pass through in order to get from your apartment into a taxicab.”

“The structure is not a celebration of the garden, but rather a shelter within it,” writes Ms. Sagan in her design statement. A teak steamer chair inside the structure addresses the “lack of comfortable chairs” in nature.

Architect Ronald Berlin was thrilled to create a design for economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman. “He has the boldness and courage to address a crisis in American government right now,” says Mr. Berlin.

To come up with the design, he studied a dollar bill. “I remembered seeing this mysterious pyramid on the reverse side of the Great Seal of the U.S. I started to research the eye of providence, which is fortune smiling down on this fantastic experiment to form the new U.S., a break with the prior system of monarchy. The pyramid is a symbol of strength and stability.

“That seemed to echo Paul’s writing,” continues Mr. Berlin. “He’s saying, ‘Don’t tell me how to be patriotic.’ His writing IS deeply patriotic because it is critical in a constructive way. I’ve written to him and he’s endorsed it.”

Mr. Berlin’s pyramidal ode to Mr. Krugman’s writing will have a glass skylight at its summit, made by Bob Kuster at Belle Mead Hot Glass.

“It’s been a wonderful opportunity for architecture to free itself from the usual constraints of function and prosaic tasks,” says Mr. Berlin. “It’s an opportunity for architecture to be expressive.”

The pavilion designed for Princeton University Professor of Religion Cornel West uses aerospace aluminum in a honeycomb pattern. “We wanted to do something poetic and powerful for him,” says architect John Nastasi. His partner, architect Sharon McHugh, a lifelong Princeton resident, wanted the trumpet-shaped design to be a threshold into the historically African-American John Witherspoon neighborhood. “We like this corner near the spire of the Baptist Church,” she says.

“Honeycomb has amazing characteristics,” says Mr. Nastasi. “When viewed or being viewed, your image is transposed onto the material.” Thus, the design is inspired by the “ideas of barrier, threshold and transparency as they related to both architecture and race relations.”

“I’m getting a formal education working with these architects,” says Mr. Soderman. “They have bequeathed to me their technology and engineering skills.”

Other writer/architect teams include Peter Benchley/Outerbridge Morgan; Emily Mann/Ralph Lerner; Paul Sigmund/John James Rivera; Peter Singer/Peter Wasem; and Chang-rae Lee/James Chavel and Chloe Town.

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