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A Popular Concept Lives On With Scientists Replacing Writers

Matthew Hersh

Einstein would be proud.

Princeton's most famous physicist was known not only for changing the way we look at the physical world, but for the way he was able to balance his commitment to science with his involvement in music and writing. This approach could have been the model for the anticipated sequel of the Princeton Writers Block, which has been tentatively dubbed "Quark Park," with a nod to science. The timing is good since Einstein is being celebrated this year, the 100th anniversary of the publishing of his Theory of Relativity.

Writers Block, which was open from July to October of last year, was an outdoor installation of garden structures or "follies" that were inspired by the works of noteworthy Princeton-based authors and built by teams assembled by equally-noteworthy local architects. The Paul Krugman folly, for example, was designed by architect Ron Berlin.

But for this year's garden, which will again appear on the future site of Palmer Square's luxury housing complex along Paul Robeson Place, the same concept will be built around prominent Princeton scientists. "One thing about archictecture is that we have to be a bit of a scientist, writer, costumer, aesthetician, logician, and a bit of a lot of things," said Kevin Wilkes, a principal in the architectural firm Princeton Design Guild, and a member of the management team for last year's garden. "There might be some hard science facts that come out here that could be illuminated. Science deals with some real, provable laws," he added, saying that some of the design elements could, indeed, be based on science.

"But nonetheless, it will be a garden event: it will have plantings, it will have a place to sit and relax, to read and to hear readings and see events." Several as-yet-unnamed Princeton University professors have reportedly signed on to the project, and David Dobkin, dean of the faculty at Princeton University's Department of Computer Science, is said to have been involved in the conceptual planning of the garden.

The aim for this year's event will be more organized, with more outreach than last year. While well received by the community, the 2004 Writers Block did not generate the kind of revenue that organizers had hoped for. The garden was only open for about two-and-a-half months, and a folly auction held at the garden's closing produced only about a fifth of the $150,000 pricetag of the installation.

This year, Mr. Wilkes, along with returning organizers Alan Goodheart and Peter Soderman, intend to launch a fund-raising campaign to raise at least $100,000 with a goal of raising $65,000 by the first week of May, hoping to have the garden open by Memorial Day or by Princeton's Reunions Weekend at the beginning of June.

The three organizers have set up the not-for-profit "Princeton Occasions," which will allow donors to give tax-deductible donations to help finance the garden. Members of the group are optimistic in spite of the financial hit accrued by all parties involved last year.

So why, in the name of Einstein, would organizers be inclined to bring this back after taking such a monumental net loss? Two reasons, Mr. Wilkes said.

The garden was immensely popular. Families would go there on the weekends, local groups would hold events there, even the writers who served as inspiration to the architecture held readings there. One memorable moment was Civil War expert James McPherson reading passages from his Pulitzer Prize-winning Battle Cry of Freedom in the waning afternoon sun of late October.

Second, the garden had merit. In November 2004, Writers Block was awarded the "Honor Award for Built Project" by the New Jersey chapter of the American Institute of Architects. The award validated an experimental endeavor in urban planning, and despite the financial loss, it encouraged organizers to try again.

After consulting with a professional fund-raiser, Princeton Occasions will embark on a campaign this week to properly finance what, organizers feel, could be an overwhelming success. "We have a certain level of confidence that we didn't have last year. We have a track record now and we're going to open earlier in the year so people have a longer run to enjoy the garden," Mr. Wilkes said.

Any plan for a garden needs to be approved by the Princeton Borough Zoning Board of Adjustment, but in light of last year's approval, that doesn't seem to be an insurmountable obstacle.

Palmer Properites, LLC, will return to the Princeton Regional Planning Board in late May or early June with a final site plan for the 100 luxury apartments and condominums along that part of Paul Robeson, or "Hulfish North," according to David Newton, vice president of Palmer Square Management. A best case scenario would be the ability to be "in the ground" by the end of the year, but a springtime ground-breaking is more likely to be the case, Mr. Newton said.

"Quark Park" is the result of a partnership between Princeton Occasions and Palmer Square. While Palmer Square will not dictate the content or theme, it does serve as the landlord for a property that will soon be prime real estate, and as long as that land is not developed, Mr. Newton said he welcomed the outdoor installation's return.

"The lot is still vacant and they did a very good job last year, so it didn't take too much for them to persuade us to do it again," he said, adding "as long as they do as nice a job as they did last year." Mr. Newton also said that from a business standpoint, the garden is good for the shops in and around Palmer Square: "It attracts people to Palmer Square and that's what I see as positive." To donate or for those interested in volunteering, call Princeton Occasions at (609) 683-1034, extension 3.


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