August 2, 2017

Project Turns Dohm Alley Into an Art Exhibit

ALLEY GALLERY: Dohm Alley’s first exhibit features sculpted portraits of Romantic poets, as well as acoustic guitar and birdsongs played over speakers. (Photo by Will Uhl)

After years of planning, the construction and assembly of Design at Dohm Alley’s (DaDA) first exhibit is underway. The public art project seeks to merge Princeton University’s scholarly sensibilities with the public life of the town by adorning the alley with art exhibits. The first exhibit, currently unfolding as the weeks pass, is a tribute to Romantic-era poets. 

So far, the once-barren alley is now home to a set of sculptures based on famous Romantics such as Keats, Shelley, and Wordsworth. It also contains high-bowed arches, wooden benches, and an opening archway lavishly decorated with all manner of floral life, called the moon gate. As the exhibit nears completion, more sculptures and features, like a poetry-engraved stone with flowing water, are expected to be included.

The idea came from many of the same minds that developed Writers Block and Quark Park, two other temporary Princeton fixtures that also sought to replace vacant areas with art and plant life. “The concept of Dohm Alley is that there’s this negative urban space — this little alley between Landau’s and Starbucks,” said artist and architect Richard Chenowith. “Dohm Alley will take that tiny negative urban space and turn that into something positive.” The alleyway is already a far cry from its former appearance, with gritty asphalt replaced by elegant brickwork and curved metal arches that echo the nearby University.

The eastern portal of Princeton University’s FitzRandolph gate shares a line of sight with Dohm Alley — a fact which Mr. Chenowith thinks is more than coincidence. “We’re right on axis with this very famous walkway that goes straight to the debating halls, but we happen to be an alley,” he said.

The University has already influenced the alley’s art, thanks to guidance from Princeton English professor Dr. Susan Wolfson. Mr. Chenowith hopes to continue that spirit of collaboration. “In the same way that these arches and this paving is infilling something, the alley itself is a way the university can infill at the town,” he said.

Similar to how Writers Block and Quark Park were temporary attractions, DaDA plans to function as something of an evolving gallery, hosting new exhibits across many media as the months continue. “The goal is to educate and to exhibit and to raise the level of discussion and to make things known to visitors of Princeton that they didn’t know before,” said Mr. Chenoweth. “It could be things about the town, about history, about art, about space. There is a certain flexibility in the project.”

Transforming an alley into a public art installation is an exciting challenge for many involved, including landscape designer and installation artist Peter Soderman. “It [Dohm Alley] isn’t useless — it’s necessary. You know the way people want the garbage man there but not around? That’s what an alley is,” said Mr. Soderman. “It’s a place you don’t want to hang out, but a place you need to go through. And we’re changing that.” Despite the challenges, Mr. Soderman sees value in transforming an unremarkable public space into something unifying the University’s academic prestige with the everyday life of Princeton residents. “This is a town and gown project worthy of President Eisgruber’s attention.”