New York Memorializes President Roosevelt

architect Louis I. Kahn
project Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park , New York, USA
written by Michael Webb

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Louis Kahn created a handful of masterpieces, including the Kimbell Art Museum in Texas, the Salk Institute in California and the National Assembly Building in Dhaka, but too many of his projects went unrealized; one of these was a memorial in New York. He completed his design for the Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park shortly before his death in 1974. A fiscal crisis derailed the project and it languished, almost forgotten, until 2010, when funding and political will converged, and the memorial was finally built, almost exactly as Kahn intended.


This tranquil retreat celebrates the man who helped guide America out of the Great Depression, and lead the Allies to victory in Europe and the Pacific. In 1941, as the US entered the war, Roosevelt made a speech that defined his basic goals for a just and peaceful world: freedom of speech and worship, freedom from fear and want. Today, when the US is mired in political gridlock and economic stagnation, it is salutary to be reminded of the much greater challenges that Roosevelt mastered.


Four Freedoms Park occupies the south tip of a narrow island in the East River, a tidal inlet that separates Manhattan from the outer boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens. It comprises a flight of steps ascending to a narrow wedge of grass bordered by allées of linden trees, and outer paths just above the water enclosed by palisades of granite piers. These walkways converge on a bust of the president and a granite-paved plaza that the architect conceived as an open-air room. It’s a place for quiet contemplation at the heart of a bustling metropolis, and a belvedere from which to gaze at the urban skyline and the harbour beyond.


The story of the memorial begins in the 1960s, when John Lindsay, the idealistic mayor of New York, appointed a commission to find a new use for Welfare Island, which had been occupied by a lunatic asylum, a prison and a leper colony. All that remained was a hospital for polio victims, so it was decided to change the name to Roosevelt Island and create a new residential community. As part of the improvements, the island was extended, yielding a five-hectare site for the memorial. The ruined shell of the isolation hospital is a grim reminder of the past, and Morphosis’s plans for Cornell University’s Tech Center offer bright promise for the future of the island.


In contrast to the Firminy church in central France, which was sketched by Le Corbusier in the early 1960s, abandoned when half built, and finally realized in an amended form by José Oubrerie, Four Freedoms closely adheres to Kahn’s construction drawings. A few changes were made to conform to the current seismic codes and improve access for the disabled. Roosevelt would have applauded this: he struggled to conceal the fact that he was crippled by polio. FDR would also have been pleased to see the United Nations buildings rising from the shoreline of Manhattan, a few blocks to the south, for he was the chief champion of that organization.


The site was raised by 38 cm to compensate for rising sea levels and caissons were driven to reinforce the foundations of the outdoor room. As with all of Kahn’s best work, there’s a feeling of monumentality and timelessness in the materials and the simplicity of the design. The architect specified a light-toned granite, and the huge quantity of piers and pavers was sourced from a single quarry in North Carolina and brought to the site by ship and barge. The memorial was fabricated meticulously, and the polished inner sides of the piers, spaced 15mm apart, catch the sparkle of light off the water.


Kahn wanted no artificial lighting, and the park is normally open only during daylight hours. The city itself has far more ambient light than it did forty years ago, thanks to the proliferation of tall buildings. However, the coastguard insisted that the outer breakwater be illuminated as a warning to river traffic, and there is sure to be a demand for evening receptions. Also, the memorial is designed to be seen from a new promenade along the Manhattan shoreline. The Four Freedoms Foundation invited Linnaea Tillett, whose New York office specializes in the lighting of public spaces, to apply her expertise. Over the past thirty years she has worked with Maya Lin and Toshiko Mori to illuminate their buildings. Out of respect for Kahn, she wanted her lighting scheme to go unnoticed, and she decided it should be introduced incrementally, so that each phase could be evaluated before the next began. ‘At first, we were so impressed by the impact of the moonlight that we questioned the idea of adding anything,’ she recalls. ‘We mocked up lighting in the water, realized it was too bold, and decided instead to light the trees, using a new embedded ground fixture that casts an LED beam two ways and reduces the number of installations.’


Many monuments are overpowered by lighting designed to attract tourists, like moths to a flame. The glare obliterates architectural detail and flattens the façades. Here, the effect is closer to moonlight, and the uplights turn the linden branches into a delicate, luminous tracery that merges with the soft glow of the city sky. From the shore, the memorial seems to hover over the black waters. In later phases, the bust of Roosevelt and the plaza will be lit with equal sensitivity to the spirit of place. This will provide an alluring spectacle from the promenade or from the top of a skyscraper looking down; a waterborne version of the linear High Line park by Diller Scofidio, which is another inspired example of adaptive re-use.


Kahn was born to a poor Jewish family in Estonia, who brought him to New York in 1906 when he was five. They were among the millions of destitute emigrants seeking a new life in America, and the freedoms that Roosevelt later proclaimed. Reading excerpts of the speech engraved into the granite plinth that supports the bust, you understand the importance of those words to the impoverished and oppressed, a century ago, and still today.