This article formerly appeared in Wild River Review as part of the Quark Park Column
By Kimberly Nagy
As I gaze upon the wild victory of Quark Park, and shake hands with architect and co-founder, Kevin Wilkes, the steadfast determination of Heracles comes to mind. Even on a blisteringly hot day in July, Wilkes exudes a cool, calm strength. Born in Atlanta, Georgia, Wilkes grew up and went to school in New York City, attended Princeton University as an undergraduate, and has lived in Princeton ever since.
The consummate gentleman, Wilkes helps me with my heavy briefcase, as we proceed into Quark Park. Stalks of corn shoot up in the periphery. Towering bamboo forms a walk-through construction of the male and female hippocampus. Rows of lavender border a multi-colored web of wires based on the complex workings of the olfactory system. Metal drum sticks abut large ringing stones in the psychoacoustics installment. The ocean robotics folly shines with hanging glass balls like bubbles against the backdrop of seemingly underwater plants — such as espaliered Blue Atlas Cedars and Japanese Maples — and today, a strikingly blue sky.
Who engineers a vision of such magnitude?
During Heracles’ famous twelve labors, he met the rage of a Nemean lion, captured birds with sword-like beaks and fire-breathing bulls, among nine other endurance tests. After each of Heracles’ victories, the Gods and Goddesses would scratch their heads in bewilderment. “How, just how, did the hero endure and overcome another impossible quest? ”
During a personally and professionally difficult year of his life, Wilkes, working with visionary and landscape designer Peter Soderman, poured thousands of dollars and much of his time into transforming a vacant lot into Writer’s Block, a temporary garden of follies honoring Princeton’s famous writers. The project, Quark Park’s predecessor, became what he called a “personal quest, a very dangerous, obsessive desire to banish the evil spirits.” And, he adds, “in large part it worked. ”
Soderman had approached over twenty other architects with the idea before he got to Kevin. They all turned him down.
As Soderman recounts, “I guess Kevin was about the twenty-fifth call. Little did I know about his leadership and organizational skills, but here’s what he said, ‘I’m driving a black pickup truck. I’ll be over in twenty minutes. ’ ”
In fact, Peter’s request intrigued Wilkes. “ I’m actually driven towards challenges and problem-solving,” says Wilkes. “I immediately grasped the seeming impossibility of pulling this off and that became the real challenge.”
As Wilkes and I talk under the bamboo cover of the hippocampus installation (the shadiest nook of Quark Park) I am struck by a thought, that the urge to problem solve on a grand scale is exactly what fuels great art and groundbreaking science. A brave jump beyond “that will never work” into a world where action and labor can magically, heroically, conquer doubt.
Tell me how you became an architect?
My path to becoming an architect was by way of trying to ignore it. My mother was an interior designer, my father was an engineer, my grandfathers were bridge builders, but I decided I should get involved in politics. So I came to Princeton and thought I would major in political science. I tried that for two semesters and was largely miserable. I would walk back and forth across the campus looking up at the architecture building thinking ‘They’re having a lot of fun in there’. So I went back to my roots, switched majors to the architecture program and finished there.
How did you meet Peter Soderman?
I met Peter about five or six years ago. Peter is responsible for a beautiful garden on the corner of Witherspoon Street and Paul Robeson Place, the Herban Garden.
What drew you into Writer’s Block, the predecessor to Quark Park?
Peter called me up and broached the idea of taking this very space where Quark Park now stands and turning it into a summer garden themed around Princeton Writers. It was one of those ideas that sounded so completely outlandish, wonderfully possible.
What did you seek to accomplish?
We wanted to create an intelligent space. The problem with many suburban or town public parks is that they often don’t get beyond basic issues of circulation and design; they might throw in a small fountain or a playground, but that is the largest risk they are willing to take. So that’s where Peter’s idea of creating a park that reflected the work of authors struck me as compelling. Our idea was that if you walked in and didn’t know about the writers theme, you would still be filled with wonder and enjoyment. But if you did know about the thematic content reflecting the authors’ work, then you would have a deeper appreciation of the meaning of the park. To a large degree we accomplished that.
How well did you know Peter at this point?
Hardly at all, it was a tremendous leap of faith for both of us. But I think we sensed very quickly that we had both matching skills sets and in other critical ways non-matching skills which allowed us to delegate certain areas so that the whole of our work would be far greater than the sum of the parts. It is actually a great working relationship.
So your partnership has a synergistic quality to it.
Yup, it’s all over that. Peter is an indefatigable relentless dreamer and I am a hardhearted cold-edged realist, and between the two of us we can dream and not become delusional.
How did you convince these famous writers to see your vision?
That fell in Peter’s realm. Peter will not take no for an answer. I said, ‘Peter I’ll put together the architects, you put together the writers and together we created the teams. I was the building inspector in Princeton Township for three years in the early nineties so I was able to recruit young architects who I knew had lots of talent, energy, and a desire to show their stuff on a public stage in town.
The younger, maybe a little more hungry?
Yes, exactly. Hunger is an important element of good art.
You received an award from the American Institute of Architects and also the New Jersey Office of Smart Growth.
Well, the awards were really the icing on the cake. We didn’t set out to seek awards. I think our best award was the town’s extraordinarily warm reception. After the garden was disassembled, almost as an afterthought, we decided to enter the American Institute of Architects New Jersey Honor awards competition and we put together a portfolio, with a lot of good photographs.
Now, this type of project isn’t normally reviewed for these types of awards. Those awards go to major company corporate headquarters, the new performing arts center, big museums. Nonetheless, we entered, and lo and behold, we were one of three award-winners for the top award, the Honor Award for a built project. Possibly, I suspect, the first time an honor award was given to a project that had been built and already disassembled before the award was presented!
And then the Office of Smart Growth Award followed the next year. That’s a New Jersey specific program designed for projects that exemplify intelligent strategies of rebuilding and reenergizing our downtowns. We weren’t entirely a great fit for the four established categories listed in the program but we submitted anyway and we won, and they created a new category for us: a category called Creative Initiative.
What do you think personally made Writers Block and now Quark Park so powerful that people have created awards around it?
In our society, so many people are focused on their private lives, on television, on events that relate to their family unit, which is great, but in our public realm, the nineteenth-century equivalent of promenading down the boulevard has evaporated. And it’s unfortunate because there is great civilizing strength in the act of bringing people together in public spaces and having them sit together and meet together.
So these awards reflect our hunger for places that allow people to get out of their shell, their family unit, their rather blinkered focus on day-to-day existence. I don’t want to say, let’s get back to a different kind of time, I am not advocating nostalgia, we are just seeking to connect to something that is basic in all of us—to come out and commune with our fellow citizenry.
The idea is to make it delightful and provocative simultaneously. To not be condescending, to be charming, but not overbearing; to be humorous, but not rude, to be intellectual and witty and relaxed and casual.
What’s the most annoying thing that’s happened along the way?
Working out the details with lawyers, the landlord, insurance companies, and approvals… We had to get a use variance from the borough to stage the garden. Believe it or not a public garden in downtown Princeton is not an approved use. If this were a retail store and I were selling blue jeans, I could go right ahead and do that. So, we had to get a use variance, we also had to get a waiver from the planning board.
Even today we are struggling to get an insurance policy. Insurance underwriters don’t know what to make of this, this garden is in the middle of someone else’s property; we don’t own it, all of the artists and scientists are working for free. Some day down the road other contractors are going to build condos here on this same spot. So far, the underwriters keep kicking it back telling us, ‘Oh, we can’t ensure this. ’
The general public often perceives sciences as dry and boring. How do you think artistic interpretation can help convince them otherwise?
A connection to art can be the bridge that spans that gap. We have a problem in America with the widening gap between profound scientific knowledge and the empirical existence of everybody’s daily lives. For example, people get in and drive their car, they have no idea how the stuff under the hood operates. To me, that reveals the gap between the existence of our daily lives and our knowledge level and familiarity with science and technology.
Maybe through the combined pathways of art and science, we can bring children of all ages into a garden of revelations and insight. We’re not going to hit them over the head with a science hammer. There will not be an AP science exam after they walk through Quark Park. If a child looks at the sculpture created by Shirley Tilghman, Nancy Cohen, Jim Sturm, and A.R. Willey, all of a sudden they might visualize how neurons and receptors work in the brain. Maybe that will open a new channel for understanding science.
That’s about the best we can do. This is not the grand solution. This is just an attempt to bring scientists out of the lab, artists out of the studios, people out of their houses, and mix them up in this little group. Hopefully, something special and memorable will be triggered by the experience.
To engage with science on a different level?
Personally I believe it’s critical for the American public not to alienate themselves from technology and science. More and more systems and games are driven with computer interfaces and chips. But you look at a chip and you don’t know how it works. At least you can look at an engine and start pulling stuff off and figure out how it works. In order to be enlightened and aware citizens of the future, we are going to need to have a better knowledge of math, a better knowledge of physics, some rudimentary knowledge of chemistry, in all, a general comfort level with science and scientific knowledge so we can make informed decisions about public policy and private goals.
How does the reality of Quark Park match your vision?
I am given over to second-guessing, “Well if we’d only done this or that”. But, I think that’s endemic to artists in general. What I’m very, very pleased and proud of is the way citizenry — from the mayor down to employees of public works, from firemen and teachers to school children—has responded to Quark Park. It fills me with pure, pure pleasure when those people come and love our garden. To me, that’s the greatest success. I’m enormously proud of that.
Who is your favorite author?
My favorite author is Walker Percy. I have that weird Southern existentialist outlook, a partial belief that things are going to work out in some weird odd way for the best. That’s what I think Percy embraced.
What’s a quark?
In particle physics, a quark is one of the smallest building blocks of all matter, at the subatomic level. There are two fundamental particle groups, quarks, and leptons—they are the basic building blocks for everything in the universe. Somehow Lepton Park didn’t have that memorable catchy ring so we went with Quark Park.