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.
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.)
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.
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.)