The Magazine

Modern Monuments

One thing is certain--Louis I. Kahn's design for a Roosevelt memorial in New York is better than what actually got built in Washington.

Feb 14, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 21 • By CATESBY LEIGH
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THREE DECADES AGO, TWO designers came up with ideas for memorials for Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The concepts shared a common core: an outdoor room, open to the sky and enclosed by primitive stone walls. To date, only one of these has been built: Lawrence Halprin's abysmal Roosevelt Memorial in Washington, D.C., finally completed in 1997. The other, Louis I. Kahn's memorial for the southern tip of Roosevelt Island in New York City, has languished in the archives.

That's a shame. Halprin managed to distill just about everything that can go wrong with a modernist memorial scheme. But Kahn's design shows that modernism at its best--in the hands of a master--doesn't have to produce the kind of dysfunctional memorials with which Washington has lately been cursed.

The Roosevelt Island project came to a halt amidst New York's financial troubles in the 1970s. A new exhibition mounted by the architecture school at the Cooper Union in Manhattan offers us a view of what might have been built--and might still be built, if an overlapping coalition of Roosevelt advocates and Kahn devotees have their way. "Coming to Light: The Louis I. Kahn Monument to Franklin D. Roosevelt for New York City" (which remains on view until February 18) and the accompanying catalogue offer a fascinating look at the background to the memorial project and the development of Kahn's design.

In a sense, Louis I. Kahn, one of twentieth-century architecture's most remarkable figures, was a supremely appropriate choice for this project, since Franklin Roosevelt never had a more passionate admirer. Born in 1901 to impoverished Estonian Jews, he arrived in Philadelphia as an infant immigrant. (He was badly scorched while peering into a household coal fire as a child, leaving his face permanently scarred.) His family remained poor, and the studious Kahn worked his way through the University of Pennsylvania, where he was trained as a classicist under the illustrious Paul Cret.

Kahn's conversion to modernism as an architect thrown out of work by the Depression was a classic zeitgeist conversion, indissolubly wedded to his fervent New Deal ideals. Society was being transformed, so architecture must follow suit. During the 1930s and 1940s, Kahn became a widely recognized expert in, and advocate for, public housing, before turning to the search for a monumental modernist architecture that consumed the latter half of his career.

Kahn died of a heart attack in March 1974, just over a year after he received the Roosevelt commission, but by then a detailed design for a 2.8-acre memorial had been worked out. "I had this thought," Kahn said while he was working on the project, "that a memorial should be a room and a garden." What he proposed for the tapering site is a long, gently inclined, landscaped V whose base would be reached by a ceremonial flight of steps made of the light-gray granite employed elsewhere at the memorial. The arms of the V would consist of twin rows of pollarded linden trees arranged along gravel paths, with a lawn in the middle. Girded by sloping walls of dressed stone, this V would be set within and raised above another V, this one consisting of level cobblestone walkways, close to the water, that would merge with the upper V at a forecourt, also paved with cobblestones. The forecourt would include a granite alcove adorned with a bust of Roosevelt.

The alcove would be situated immediately in front of the relatively small, square room terminating the garden promenade-forecourt axis. The rear wall of the alcove might receive inscriptions and serve as a backdrop to a statue of Roosevelt. From the room there would be an open view down the East River to the harbor, with the United Nations' riverfront headquarters just down the river on the right. At high tide, the room would seem to float on the water.

Apparently, the primitivist vision inspiring the design of the room's flanking granite walls is that they are just beginning to part so that columns might "become," to paraphrase one of Kahn's idiosyncratic aphorisms. Hence the walls' monolithic blocks, spaced one inch apart. The arrangement is typical of his romantic quest to reconcile modernism with architecture's primitive origins. The V-shaped promenade, however, is a modern exercise in forced perspective, intended to intensify the focus on the sculpture alcove, whose walls, like those of the room, would rise to a height of twelve feet.

Kahn's design has a classical simplicity and legibility, if not a classical grace. And it has, of course, the familiar modern quest for the "sacred," for an atmosphere of reverence, of silence, of engagement with one's inner self. Kahn sought to inspire this emotional response by recreating, on modern terms, the sacred grove and the temple interior, if not the temple, of remote antiquity. In the room, he said, he saw not only "the beginning of architecture" but "an extension of self."