This article was originally published in the July 2017 Princeton Echo.
Cascades of energy. Cascades of play, learning and community. Even cascades of careers.
A new “parklet” — facilitated by the Arts Council of Princeton with the involvement of numerous town and university entities and individuals — is literally parked for summer and fall on Palmer Square East.
But it’s although taking up metered spaces in front of the jaZams toy and book store, this interactive structure with an energy playground theme seems to be in constant motion.
“It was magic,” said Arts Council artistic director Maria Evans of the parklet’s conception and creation.
Designed by local architect Joseph Hobart Weiss, the installation is topped by an array of small windmills. Beneath are five distinct “rooms.”
Photovoltaic panels are installed in the aptly-named “sun room” section. The “engine room” has a pump for storing the latent energy of water in cylindrical columns. A “game room” contains a chess/checkers table made from a milled tree stump plus past times contributed by jaZams. The adjacent “reading room” has bench seating and a book-filled mini-library cabinet.
The “bike room” at the south end is outfitted with stationary cycles; riders will be able to “race” each other while viewing their energy outputs on monitors in the jaZams window. The energy generated by sun, wind, pumping, and pedaling powers lights and cell phone charging stations; surplus electricity can be stored in batteries.
Intrigued by mini-park structures enlivening streetscapes in New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Seattle, Princeton mayor Liz Lempert had asked the Arts Council of Princeton to facilitate a similar installation here. The first Arts Council parklet was a street-side seating array outside Small World Coffee during May-October of 2015. The second parklet is as much about local synergy as well as renewable energy.
Evans and Weiss are longtime Leigh Avenue neighbors. Last year their paths literally crossed one day in Mountain Lakes park. Weiss mentioned, “Maria, I’d be interested in helping out with the next parklet if you need an architect.”
In October, they met with Joanne Farrugia and Dean Smith, co-owners of jaZams, purveyors of high-quality, educational toys, books, and games. They were open to having the parklet as a temporary neighbor. What’s more, Weiss recalled, the four planners “had the same idea independently to make it energy-themed and a place to play, not just a place to sit. So it was a wonderful collaboration.”
Weiss notes that “the place where a project is being built is so important to me. I was intrigued by the slope of the street.” Instead of creating a structure atop a single, wedge-like platform, Weiss said, “I decided to create a cascade of rooms.”
He developed a trellis-like design that houses five distinct sections: “And those also cascaded down. That’s the important thing.”
Evans reached out to Jennifer Brunelle director of positiveNRG, the philanthropy program of NRG Energy Inc., which quickly became a major sponsor. “This is an opportunity to make energy tangible,” said Brunelle. “People walking down the street are immediately interested. There’s such a sense of community and excitement.”
Forrest Meggers and Dan Steingart of Princeton University’s Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment contributed their expertise and enlisted the help of students, all with the encouragement of Andlinger director Lynn Loo.
“We were so excited because it perfectly fits our mission of energy awareness,” said Loo. “It’s a perfect example of how the university and the community can come together.”
Meanwhile, Weiss contacted Keith Coleman, president and CEO of Hamilton Building Supply, 65 Klockner Road, about donating materials. Weiss had originally planned to build the entire parklet of wood. But Coleman urged that boral be used wherever feasible. Predominately made of fly ash (a waste byproduct of burned coal), boral is environmentally stable and structurally sound.
The university also made available the Princeton Architectural Laboratory, where the structure was physically created before being erected on Palmer Square East. “We built it ourselves,” said Weiss, “which was one of the most satisfying aspects of this project.”
The town got further involved, consulting on construction code issues, then assisting with transportation and assembly. Like jaZams, the neighboring Nassau Inn was very supportive and understanding about the temporary loss of precious parking spaces. “We know parking is important,” said Princeton mayor Lempert. “But community space is important, too.”
The structure is reminiscent in miniature of the sustainable-design home on Prospect Avenue at Murray Place that won the 2016 American Institute of Architects – New Jersey residential design award for Weiss’s firm. Weiss agreed, while qualifying, “I don’t ascribe to a particular design style. But I think there’s a certain sensibility to my work. I like horizontal lines.”
Weiss is a native of Chicago, which has produced notable horizontally emphasized modernist architecture (think, Frank Lloyd Wright and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe). His father had a company that specialized in precise cutting of cloth and plastic strips used for seam assembly in everything from garments to buildings. His mother was a painter and sculptor.
“From high school on, I was involved in shop and carpentry,” Weiss recalled. “I just liked building things, period.”
After Cornell, Class of 1979, Weiss worked as a computer system analyst for a year, and then took a year off to travel by bicycle. He eventually arrived in Cape Cod to visit a friend at the New Alchemy Institute, a pioneer in reimagining food, water, and shelter systems. Of more immediacy for Weiss’s career, he was introduced to “a real Yankee carpenter” for whom he started to work. Weiss instinctively knew that he could build his career by building — discovering “how materials are used, how things are constructed. So that’s informed all my work.”
He earned his masters in architecture at the University of Virginia in 1986, worked in New York first for Edward Larrabee Barnes and then Gwathmey Siegel, moved to Princeton to raise his family, and took a job at CUH2A before moving out on his own.
Having a community playground with an educational flavor outside jaZams seemed like a natural for co-owners Farrugia and Smith. Still, some customers were puzzled. Said Smith: “The main question everyone kept asking us was, ’Why do you want this in front of jaZams?’” To which Farrugia energetically answered: “It’s really lovely doing another space for people to play. Not just children but grownups. We need play spaces.”
Arts Council of Princeton executive director Taneshia Nash Laird approached the MacLean Agency about sponsorship. Although the insurance and financial services firm usually sponsors art exhibits, it quickly agreed to support the energy-themed outdoor installation. Laird also demonstrated such on-site enthusiasm during development that, artistic director Evans observed, “The refrain was, ‘She’s at the parklet!’”
The Arts Council, the Princeton Public Library, and Sustainable Princeton all plan scheduled or pop-up youth classes at the parklet. The independent nonprofit Sustainable Princeton is also contributing interpretive signage to explain the parklet’s green technology devices. Said executive director Molly Jones, “In light of the president’s recent decision to pull out of the Paris [climate] accords, we think clean, renewable energy is extra important.”
The book cabinet created by Mitch Crackel of ThinkForm Design Architect will be restocked by the library. Users may also leave books. “With a give and take library, it’s a way of building a community of readers,” said youth services librarian Susan Conlon.
But in November, even the parklet’s energy will have to yield to winter’s cascades of cold and snow. “It’s already everything we’ve wanted,” said jaZam’s Smith. “And we feel it will be for the next six months, which is all we could hope for.”
“The park speaks a lot for itself,” observed architect Weiss. “The whole thing of scientific discovery and play is so internalized in the design. And as grownups, we’re playing with it and we’re discovering.”