Photo: Paul Warchol
At the time of his death in 1974, Louis Kahn was in the midst of what was perhaps the most frenzied period of his career. His talents were spread far and wide throughout the world, from Bangladesh and Nepal to Israel and Iran, and, closer to home, California and New York. It was here that Kahn died anonymously in a Penn Station bathroom, while the plans and budget for the architect’s Roosevelt Memorial were under review. Nearly forty years later, after several false starts and failed campaigns, Kahn’s last completed project will finally open, thus inaugurating of the city’s great spaces. Continue.
The FDR Four Freedoms Park sits at the southernmost tip of Roosevelt Island, occupying a triangular plot four acres in area that floats above a foundation of riprap. The park, an austere white landform that rises from the middle of the East River, anchors what is currently a neglected, if relatively unexplored, neighborhood of the city. Kahn’s monolithic design is at once foreign and contextual, defined by a conceptual clarity that rises untethered from its industrial surroundings, while its thoughtful construction and exquisite execution grounds the project to the island’s bedrock.
A flight of ceremonial stairs herald the entrance to the elevated lawn, imploring the visitor to ascend the high mound and discover what surprises lay ahead. Battered granite walls on either side encase the tapered yard and its attendant banks of littleleaf linden trees, narrowing to a point in the manner of an arrowhead. The garden floor converges toward a central bust of the 32nd president, cast by Jo Davidson in 1933, and empties out onto a cobbled forecourt, where, passing through a second screen of trees, one finds themselves face to face with Roosevelt’s jutting chin.
To the right, the dramatic swell of skyscrapers trumpet a modernism at odds with Kahn’s, a tedious collage of corporate towers that serves as the backdrop to the architect’s near primitive massing of stone blocks. Continue past the enshrined effigy and enter into the “Room”, a 60-foot square open plaza bounded to the rear by the commemorative wall–the obverse of the sculpture niche and hand-etched with the lines Roosevelt’s eponymous speech–and to the sides by 36-ton granite cubes. Ahead, a window out onto the river and, if you squint, its eventual spillage into the sea.
Here, Kahn presents the viewer with a portal to the larger world, a stunning view of the city that would perhaps prove overwhelming were it not for the gentle crash of water and the languorous cries of cormorants nesting on nearby islets. The bluish-green slab of the United Nations looms to the southwest, standing testament to Roosevelt’s words and work. Perched at the edge of the island, with the water diverging on three sides, one feels a kinship to the city that only comes from such vantage points.
The “Room”; Photo: Paul Warchol
Yet, were it not for the efforts of organizers like William J. vanden Heuvel, the design would not have made it off the drawing boards (or canary yellow trace paper). Vanden Heuvel, the chair emeritus of the Franklin & Eleanor Roosevelt Institute and chairman of the Four Freedoms Park Conservancy, led a fundraising charge to find the $53 million needed to realize the project, and the park’s reverent completion can be largely attributed to his efforts. The city remains in his debt for his perseverance in bringing Kahn’s belated memorial to life.
Vanden Heuvel hopes that the park will serve as a “great public space for the teaching of American history”, and one couldn’t imagine a more appropriate mandate for Kahn’s vision. After all, architecture was for Kahn the great shaper of the civic realm, wherein the “dignity” of a building–and the intent it embodied–reflected that of its human occupants. The Four Freedoms Park more than fulfills its maker’s solemn promise.