Meditating on the Abstract Majesty of Louis Kahn's Roosevelt Island FDR Park

Meditating on the Abstract Majesty of Louis Kahn's Roosevelt Island FDR Park
Four Freedoms Park
(Photo by Paul Warchol)

In 1973, New York governor Nelson Rockefeller and mayor John Lindsay announced plans for a new memorial honoring president Franklin D. Roosevelt. Louis Kahn had been singled out as the architect to transform the site of the memorial, the undeveloped southern tip of Roosevelt Island, into a hallowed public park. No one could then anticipate that this design would be the last of Kahn's few though canonical contributions to architecture, and that it would be completed almost four decades after the architect sketched his first ideas on yellow trace paper. As fate would have it, the very next year, in 1974, Kahn passed away, his body found shrouded in anonymity in a Penn Station bathroom. Hit with such an extraordinary setback, the project lost momentum, and Kahn's vision for a four-acre park on the tip of Roosevelt Island survived only in ideas, drawings, and construction documents.

But survive it did. When Kahn passed, "We were left with the idea and not the resources," said William vanden Heuvel, former United States ambassador to the U.N. and founder of the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute, at a press preview last Thursday. In 2005, vanden Heuvel revived efforts to complete the largely forgotten endeavor, raising public awareness of the project and attracting a string of generous grants. With $50 million in privately raised funds and an additional $11 million from the city, the long-stalled project got its second wind, and construction began in 2010. The finished memorial was officially dedicated yesterday, its soldierly rows of little leaf linden trees and pristine white granite landscape ready to welcome the public at the end of the month.

Four Freedoms Park is a work of masterful design. At the entrance, the northernmost point of the park, visitors are greeted by a grand flight of stairs. From this steeped angle, the memorial appears fortress-like, its primitive granite geometries forming the immense, slab-like base of a pyramid, emanating the white monumentalism of D.C.'s landmarks.

At the top of the stairs, a verdant lawn awaits, a lush expanse of grass that tapers along the tip of the island, gently compelling visitors to press forward. Flanking rows of thin-stalked trees fill the air with the gentle din of wind-tossed foliage. From here, one can glance behind and behold the island's 19th-century small pox hospital, a romantic ruin perfectly framed by Kahn's symmetrical landscape. To the left and right are waterfront panoramas of Queens and Manhattan, the post-industrial aura of Long Island City’s PepsiCola sign and the cerulean sheen of the U.N. building appearing uncannily close.

Several slow strides ahead sits the focal point of Kahn’s tree-lined orthogonals: a large bronze sculpture of Roosevelt’s head cradled in a massive open cube of white stone. As visitors advance, the surrounding city begins to dissolve, the space of the memorial tapering to a more intimate scale, and Roosevelt’s stern, oversized countenance commanding attention like the hovering centerpiece of a de Chirico canvas.

Though the sculpted image of Roosevelt will, without doubt, become the park’s iconic marker of place, the most poignant space lies just beyond it. The last segment of the park, “The Room” as Kahn termed it, is quite literally a room of white marble, its walls consisting of tall, 36-ton blocks of stone that keep the neighboring skyscrapers at bay. One-inch gaps between the white monoliths let in thin slivers of light, while the blocks themselves paint the floor with sharply abstract shadows. These ephemeral effects complement the design’s climactic finale: an enormous, cinematic window opening out to the East River.

Perhaps the greatest gift of Kahn’s only project in New York City is an entirely new view of the metropolis. At the end of the journey, one finds a dramatic urban vista framed by trenchantly carved stone but softened by the emollient sights and sounds of waves washing up against the island’s rocky tip. This is a space one can inhabit for hours, ensconced in the permanence of colossal marble and the transience of light, shadow, sound, and life. In this rare moment, the city feels at peace.

Though one can easily get lost in Kahn’s architectural abstractions, the man immortalized in bronze is not forgotten. Kahn does justice to Roosevelt by elevating not the man himself but the ideas for which he stood, the four freedoms of the former president’s 1941 State of the Union address: freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. Four Freedoms Park transitions drastically from a commanding display of monumentality and order — the image of a nation united — to the pensive, abstract space of “The Room” — an experience so psychologically intimate, it is almost dreamlike. With material, space, and imagery, Kahn’s park celebrates a people unified not under one leader, but under the essential freedom for individuals to be as they are.