It has taken 38 years for the late Louis Kahn’s vision for a memorial park to the USA’s 32nd president to finally be realised in New York
The period in which Louis Kahn produced the buildings that we regard as his mature oeuvre was not a long one. He was 50 when he secured the commission for the extension to the Yale University Art Gallery, and 73 when he was found dead in New York’s Pennsylvania Station on his return from a trip to India. However, thanks to the commitment of his clients and collaborators, the story didn’t end there. In 1977, three years after the architect’s death, the Yale Centre for British Art opened to the public, followed in 1983 by the National Assembly of Bangladesh. And this month, despite what must have often seemed insurmountable odds, a third project can be added to this list of posthumous works. Occupying the southern tip of New York City’s Roosevelt Island, Four Freedoms Park is set to open to the public on October 24, almost four decades after Kahn finalised its design during the last year of his life.
The park’s name honours the 1941 speech in which President Franklin Delano Roosevelt set out the fundamental freedoms that everyone in the world should enjoy: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want and freedom from fear. It was delivered at a moment when many Americans were unpersuaded of the need for their country to join the Allied war effort and offered a forceful assault on that isolationist mindset. The speech was a call for recognition of the role that government could play in an America still struggling out of depression, and also a demand that US citizens meet their responsibility to the wider world. Given America’s current political climate, Roosevelt’s message might be thought as provocative now as it was 71 years ago.
Focused on a large bronze head of Roosevelt created by the sculptor Jo Davidson in 1933, the park serves as a memorial to the 32nd president. Its siting is particularly potent. Roosevelt Island is a narrow strip of land that extends for 4km down the middle of the city’s East River, confronting at its southern end the headquarters of the United Nations, which stands a couple of hundred metres along the Manhattan bank. The Four Freedoms speech was in many respects the bedrock of the UN: at the prompting of Roosevelt’s widow, its principles were enshrined in the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
For Kahn, this was a project of enormous personal significance. While the work he produced during the early part of his career remains comparatively obscure, the period was far from misspent, being devoted to the cause of social housing delivered as part of Roosevelt’s New Deal.
Kahn saw himself as a beneficiary of that programme too. The son of Estonian immigrants, he had suffered profound poverty and recognised that, were it not for the New Deal, he would have struggled to escape it. Theodore Liebman, the director of design at the New York State Urban Development Corporation — Kahn’s client on Four Freedoms Park — observed that the architect “loved Roosevelt and knew much more about him than most of us”.
Kahn recognised that, were it not for Roosevelt’s New Deal, he would have struggled to escape poverty
From the point of commission in early 1973, Kahn developed a series of designs over the course of 12 months, the agreed version dating from just weeks before he died. It wasn’t his death that sank the project, however. Budgeted at $6 million, the scheme initially progressed under the stewardship of his associate David Wisdom, only to run aground on the rocks of New York City’s near-bankruptcy in 1975. In the following decade there was an attempt to start it up again, but this too was scuppered by one of the city’s intermittent financial crises. At one point the city came close to selling off the land to housing developers.
The story of how the park came at last to be realised dates from 2005, when an exhibition of the proposals, sponsored by the Franklin & Eleanor Roosevelt Institute, was staged at New York’s Cooper Union school of architecture. It inspired the institute’s newly appointed chair emeritus, William vanden Heuvel, to begin pursuing the idea of reviving the scheme.
That mission was aided significantly by a New York Times review of the show which came to the attention of Alphawood, a charitable foundation run by the Chicago businessman and leading Democrat donor Fred Eychaner. It contributed $10 million seed money towards the $53 million it has ultimately cost to realise Kahn’s design.
The primary move, which all the iterations of Kahn’s scheme employed, is the remodelling of the southernmost 200m of the island into a level platform of an attenuated, triangular plan.
It rises out of the river on a rubble bank now set 38cm higher than Kahn proposed, in recognition of the rise in water levels that has taken place since 1974. On top of this base stands a garden, which visitors traverse before arriving at an open-roofed memorial “room” at the island’s tip. For Kahn, the dialogue between these two elements represented a primal theme. “The garden is somehow a personal nature, a personal kind of control of nature, a gathering of nature,” he explained. “And the room was the beginning of architecture.”
Source: Amiaga photography
The garden occupies the larger part of the platform, but reads as an object in its own right, encompassed on all sides by a path. It is 4m higher at its north end than at the south, giving it a wedge-like form which is edged by a battered wall. Having climbed the wide bank of steps at the high end, we find the ground dropping away in front of us, framed to either side by allées of littleleaf linden trees. They converge on the head of Roosevelt, which is lent a pharaonic cast by a massive, throne-like plinth of granite. The slope and the funnelling in plan both force the perspective, making the memorial appear at once further away and still more monumental. A local, inhabited scene and a distant, static one are set into a highly theatrical relationship much in the way they are in the courtyard of Kahn’s Salk Institute.
Source: Paul Warchol
The journey down towards the water is modulated by a series of thresholds. Three-quarters of the way down the slope, the lawn is cut across by a path beyond which lies a second, hard surfaced garden lined by double banks of trees. This in turn gives onto a terrace from which we can view the head at close quarters. Kahn’s “room” lies beyond, accessible to either side of the memorial head. In earlier schemes the room took the form of a steel cylinder, but the final version comprises an 18m square enclosure formed of colossal 1.8m x 1.8m x 3.6m granite blocks. They are open-jointed, admitting slivers of light, but of a height that significantly obscures the buildings that line the shore to either side. Behind us, the rear face of the plinth bearing the head carries an extract from Roosevelt’s speech. The view ahead, dominated by the UN, remains open.
A flight of six steps leads down to a sunken seating area, enabling the top of the balustrade to correspond in height to the room’s principal floor level. We therefore enjoy an unusually direct relationship to the river’s expanse, a connection that brings to mind the important role that Kahn afforded to water in the Bangladesh Assembly building. In fact the East River is not a river at all but a tidal strait, and at certain times of the day its current is phenomenally fast. Visiting at such moments, one has a powerful sense of standing on the prow of a ship.
Source: Paul Warchol
Leaving the room, we find that the allées frame the elevation of the building that stands to the north of the garden, a derelict 19th-century smallpox hospital which the Kahn scheme partly screens by a row of copper beeches — and which, it is now hoped, can be converted for use as a visitor centre. As an emblem of the segregationist manner in which pre-Roosevelt America dealt with the marginalised, the building’s relationship with the memorial is particularly loaded.
In 1971, Kahn was awarded the American Institute of Architects’ Gold Medal. His acceptance speech represented his most developed statement about his thoughts on the relationship between architectural form and the human agreements that those forms embody. For Kahn, the discovery of that relationship lay at the core of the architect’s task. “Human agreement,” he explained, “is a sense of rapport, of commonness, of all bells ringing in unison — not needing to be understood by example but felt as an undeniable inner demand for a presence. It is an inspiration with a promise of the possible.” In Four Freedoms Park - a project that speaks not just of the society of Americans, but of the larger family of man — those bells ring with thrilling vibrancy.
Architect Louis I. Kahn (deceased)
Client Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park
Architect of record Mitchell/Giurgola Architects
Services engineer Langan Engineering & Environmental Services
Structural engineer Weidlinger Associates
M&E Loring Consulting Engineers