Breaking News

Apple Beats Second-Quarter Earnings Estimates, Boosts Buyback Plan to $90B
Tweet TWEET

Louis Kahn FDR Memorial Rises in New York River After 40 Years

Tap for Slideshow
Source: Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park via Bloomberg

A view of the southern tip of Roosevelt Island, in the East River in New York. The $54-million Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park is being built there. Designed in 1973 by Louis I. Kahn, who is considered among the most revered architects of the 20th century, it is likely to be his last unbuilt work to be realized.

Close
Source: Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park via Bloomberg

A view of the southern tip of Roosevelt Island, in the East River in New York. The $54-million Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park is being built there. Designed in 1973 by Louis I. Kahn, who is considered among the most revered architects of the 20th century, it is likely to be his last unbuilt work to be realized. Close

A view of the southern tip of Roosevelt Island, in the East River in New York. The $54-million Franklin D. Roosevelt... Read More

Source: Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park via Bloomberg

A detail of the memorial room under construction that is the key element of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park in New York. Intended as a roofless, contemplative space, the room -- now surrounded by a temporary metal bulkhead -- will appear to rise from the swirling waters of the East River. The 38-year-old design by celebrated 20th-century architect Louis I. Kahn is only now being realized. It will open in 2012. Close

A detail of the memorial room under construction that is the key element of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms... Read More

Source: Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park via Bloomberg

A view of the the $54-million Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park rising at the southern tip of Roosevelt Island in New York. Visitors will pass by the preserved ruins of a 19th century hospital (left in photo) and mount a stairway to a long wedge-shaped garden that leads to a square roofless memorial room. The 1973 design by architect Louis I. Kahn will open in fall 2012. Close

A view of the the $54-million Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park rising at the southern tip of Roosevelt Island... Read More

Photographer: James S. Russell/Bloomberg

A construction view of the memorial room of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park in New York. A bust of president Franklin D. Roosevelt, who led America through the Great Depression and World War II, will preside over a roofless memorial space that will guide the visitor gaze to the lower stretches of the East River. Architect Louis I. Kahn, who died just after completing this design in 1974, hoped this emblem of the infinite would inspire contemplation. Close

A construction view of the memorial room of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park in New York. A bust of... Read More

New York’s East River swirls around a roofless room, an unfinished shrine built of massive stones. It’s the first visible part of what will be a five-acre memorial to Franklin Delano Roosevelt at the southern tip of the island renamed for him.

The Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park was one of the final designs of architect Louis I. Kahn, who died in 1974, a year after beginning work on the project. For years, politics and economics conspired to halt work. Now it is finally being built almost exactly as Kahn designed it.

At the time it was conceived, the Vietnam War was ending, an oil embargo was pushing up gasoline prices, and Kahn had just designed or built his greatest buildings, such the vaulted travertine galleries of the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth and the eerily monumental capital complex in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

I walked the construction site in the company of Gina Pollara, the executive director. Though most of the site is mounded with soil and rocks, I could see that Kahn had in mind the monumental simplicity of the ancient architecture he revered.

We hiked along the edge of the island, dodging equipment and a high pile of soil. Bulldozers will smooth that pile into a 24-foot-high sloping wedge. When it’s complete, visitors will ascend to the top on a wide stair and then gradually descend through a tree-lined garden that narrows toward the island tip.

Stone Plaza

The garden culminates in a small stone plaza with a single pylon holding a 1933 bust of Roosevelt by Jo Davidson, selected by Kahn. It stands sentinel at the entrance of the roofless square room that is the focus of the composition. The four foundational freedoms that Roosevelt spelled out in 1941 (of speech and worship, from fear and want) will be cut into the back of the pylon. A low parapet will direct the viewer’s gaze southward to the curving lower reaches of the river.

Kahn makes a contemplative space in the middle of the city’s noise and bustle, as he did with his Salk Institute for Biological Studies, in La Jolla, California, letting the river replace the infinite sea as the element opening the imagination.

(He may have influenced Maya Lin in her celebrated design of the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington. They both chose deceptively simple gestures to minimize distraction and every hint of artifice. The September 11 Memorial that will partially open this September will include a vast fountain plaza, a visitor center and a museum to help us feel our grief and make sense of senseless terror attacks.)

Ancient Temples

Kahn’s design relies entirely on the kind of awe inspired by the stony perfection of ancient temples.

The $6 million Four Freedoms park was about ready for construction when Governor Nelson Rockefeller, a prime mover, went to Washington to become vice president to Gerald Ford, who had succeeded a Watergate-disgraced Richard Nixon. Mayor John Lindsay, another Roosevelt fan, found himself presiding over a city teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. And Kahn died of a heart attack in a public bathroom in New York’s Pennsylvania station.

The project stopped. Over the years, Roosevelt’s admirers kept it alive, but “the money and the political will never arrived at the same time,” said Pollara, as we gazed at the massive, 36-ton gray granite stones that form the room’s walls. Cormorants on a rock outcropping held their wings out to dry.

‘My Architect’

William vanden Heuvel, who has represented a succession of Roosevelt family foundations since the project’s inception, said that the 2005 documentary film “My Architect” by Kahn’s son, Nathaniel, helped renew public and private commitment.

The New York architecture firm Mitchell/Giurgola took over the project after Kahn’s death. The park is now near its $54 million fundraising goal and will open in fall 2012.

Kahn’s design hasn’t dated, and I find myself wistful for Roosevelt, who forcefully steered the nation through the Great Depression and World War II. I hope visitors give both men their due.

(James S. Russell writes on architecture for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. Island Press has just published his book, “The Agile City.” The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer of this column: James S. Russell in New York at jamesrussell@earthlink.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this column: Manuela Hoelterhoff at mhoelterhoff@bloomberg.net.

Bloomberg reserves the right to edit or remove comments but is under no obligation to do so, or to explain individual moderation decisions.

Please enable JavaScript to view the comments powered by Disqus.