Labor of Love:
An Interview With Architect Kevin Wilkes
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 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 insure 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 into 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.
In 2006, Kimberly Nagy founded Wild River Review with Joy E. Stocke; and in 2009, they founded Wild River Consulting & Publishing, LLC. With more than twenty years in the field of publishing, Nagy specializes in market outreach and digital media strategies as well as crafting timeless articles and interviews. She edits many of the writers who appear in the pages of Wild River Review, as well as clients from around the world.
Kimberly Nagy is a poet, professional writer, and dedicated reader who has interviewed a number of leading thinkers, including Academy-Award winning filmmaker, Pamela Tanner Boll, MacArthur Genius Award-winning Edwidge Danticat, historian James McPherson, playwright Emily Mann, biologist and novelist, Sunetra Gupta and philosopher Alain de Botton.
Nagy is an author, editor and professional storyteller. She received her BA in history at Rider University where she was influenced by professors who stressed works of literature alongside dates and historical facts–as well as the importance of including the perspectives of women and minorities in the historical record. During a period in which she fell in love with writing and research, Nagy wrote an award-winning paper about the suppression of free speech during World War I, and which featured early 20th century feminist and civil rights leader, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn.
Nagy continued her graduate studies at University of Connecticut, Storrs, where she studied with Dr. Karen Kupperman, an expert in early contact between Native Americans and the first European settlers. Nagy wrote her Masters thesis, focusing on the work of the first woman to be accepted into the Connecticut Historical Society as well as literary descriptions of Native Americans in Connecticut during the 19th century. Nagy has extensive background and interest in anthropological, oral history and cultural research.
After graduate school, Nagy applied her academic expertise to a career in publishing, in which she worked for two of the world’s foremost publishers—Princeton University Press and W.W. Norton—as well as at Thomson, Institutional Investor Magazine, Routledge UK, and Recording for the Blind & Dyslexic.
Kimberly Nagy in this Edition
AIRMAIL – LETTERS FROM AROUND THE WORLD
AIRMAIL – VOICE FROM SYRIA
ARTS – ART
ARTS – FILM REVIEWS
ARTS – MUSIC
ARTS – PHOTOGRAPHY
The Triple Goddess Trials: Fire in the Head: Brigit’s Mysterious Spark
The Triple Goddess Trials: Introduction
The Triple Goddess Trials – Meeting Virginia Woolf at the Strand
The Triple Goddess Trials: Me and Medusa
The Triple Goddess Trials: Aphrodite and the Lightbulb Factory
The Triple Goddess Trials: Goddess of Milk and Honey
The Triple Goddess Trials: Kali’s Ancient Love Song
ASHLEY – Renee Ashley: A Voice Answering a Voice
BELLI – Giocanda Belli – The Page is My Home
BOLL – Pamela Tanner Boll: Dangerous Women: An Interview with Academy Award Winner Pamela Tanner Boll
DANTICAT – Create Dangerously- A Conversation with Edwidge Danticat
CHARBONNEAU – A Cruise Along the Inside Track: With Le Mobile’s Sound Recording Legend Guy Charbonneau
de BOTTON – The Art of Connection: A Conversation with Alain de Botton
GUPTA – Suneptra Gupta – The Elements of Style: The Novelist and Biologist Discusses Metaphor and Science
HANDAL – Nathalie Handal – Love and Strange Horses
KHWAJA – Waqas Khwaja: What a Difference a Word Makes
MAURO: New World Monkeys: An Interview with Nancy Mauro
MORGANSing, Live, & Love Like You Mean It: An Interview with Bertha Morgan
MOSS – Practical Mystic–Robert Moss: On Book Families, Jung and How Dreams Can Save Your Soul
OGLINE – BEN FRANKLIN.COM: Author & Illustrator Tim Ogline explains why Ben Franklin would be a technology evangelist today
OLSEN – Greg Olsen – Reaching for the Stars: Scientist, Entrepreneur and Space Traveler
PALYA – Beata Palya – The Secret World of Songs
SCHIMMEL – Moonlight Science: A Conversation with Molecular Biologist and Entrepreneur, Paul Schimmel
SHORS – Journey into the Male & Female Brain: An Interview with Tracey Shors
von MOLTKE and SIMMS – Dorothy von Moltke and Cliff Simms: Why Independent Bookstores Matter, Part I
WARD – On the Rocks: Global Warming and the Rock and Fossil Record – An Interview with Peter Ward, Part One, and
On the Rocks: Global Warming and the Rock and Fossil Record – An Interview with Peter Ward, Part Two
WILKES – Labor of Love: An Interview With Architect Kevin Wilkes
LITERATURE – MEMOIR
LITERATURE – POETRY
LIVE FROM THE NYPL
Fountain of Curiosity: Paul Holdengraber on Attention, Tension and Stretching the Limits of Conversation at the New York Public Library
The New York Public Library at 100: From the Stacks to the Streets
Paul Holdengraber: The Afterlife of Conversation
That Email Changed My Life: Rolex Arts Initiative. Pulitzer Prize Winning Poet Tracy K. Smith Celebrates Rolex Arts Initiative
First Editions / Second Thoughts — Defending Writers: PEN and Christie’s Raise One Million Dollars to Support Freedom of Expression
ON AFRICA: May 4 to May 10 — Behind the Scenes with Director Jakab Orsos: Co-curated by Award-Winning Author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
The Page is My Home: Giaconda Belli – Nicaraguan Poet, Writer and Public Intellectual
Georgian Writer David Dephy’s Second Skin
The Power of Conversation: David Grossman and Nadine Gordimer – The Arthur Miller Freedom to Write Lecture
NEW FROM WILD RIVER BOOKS – Brief Eulogies at Roadside Shrines
Daring Collaborations: Rolex and LIVE from the NYPL at the New York Public Library
Wild River Books Announces the Stoutsburg Cemetery Project: The Untold Stories of an African American Burial Ground in New Jersey
Wild River Books: Surprise Encounters by Scott McVay
Wild River Review and Minerva’s Bed & Breakfast Presents – “BITTER” Writing in a Weekend: How to Write About the Things We Can’t Change
ALLEN – Quarks, Parks, and Science in Everyday Life: Filmmaker Chris Allen’s Documentary Where Art Meets Science in a Vacant Lot
HOLT – Rush Holt: An Interview with Rush Holt
MANN – Boundless Theater: An Interview with Emily Mann
Keeping Time: A Conversation with Historian James McPherson