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."

THERE'S SILLINESS in some of this--but not in all of it. Contrast it with the plan Halprin realized in Washington. Like many of our current crop of memorial designers, Halprin is a landscape designer rather than an architect or a sculptor. He began his design with the misleading concept of a memorial not as a discrete, vertically integrated composition but as an "archetypal progression," which means that he strewed his Cyclopean walls of quarry-face carnelian granite over seven and a half acres in West Potomac Park, in a bravura exercise in memorial sprawl.

These walls enclose four "rooms," each corresponding to one of Roosevelt's terms in office and each decked out with waterfalls, pools, carved inscriptions, and bad representational sculpture in bronze. (The forecourt with a statue of Rooseveltin a wheelchair is a later addition.) Visitors wind their way through the labyrinth: large, stark spaces, paved in the same brownish-pinkish granite, which are mostly closed off from the Tidal Basin by the profusion of cherry trees. The axis of the final room, where Roosevelt's "Four Freedoms" are carved into a sort of primitive bulwark that suggests the remnant of a primeval tower, pivots to open a generous view of the basin and the Jefferson Memorial. But the intended sense of release and exhilaration doesn't kick in--mainly because Halprin has orchestrated the scale of his design so ineptly. The aura of the sacred precinct his walls were supposed to evoke is completely dispelled.

Indeed, Halprin's memorial is infected with a rank sentimentality alien to Kahn's work. The Piranesian grandeur Kahn saw in the time-ravaged hulks of ancient baths, forums, and markets inspired some of his most impressive work, such as his business school in Ahmedabad, India: a red-brick complex (completed in 1974), where cavernous buildings resemble Roman warehouses. But the ruinous imagery Halprin imparted to his design is a gimmick Kahn was far above. Indeed, Kahn specified rough stone for his Roosevelt monument in a classical manner. In covering the slopes of the lower V with such stone--rather than the dressed stone girding the upper V--he had in mind the former's proximity to the untamed river, aiming at a contrast with the garden promenade's more formal setting.

THE COOPER UNION EXHIBITION is an uncritical production that seeks to galvanize public support for the realization of Kahn's memorial. And while it's true that his design looks marvelous compared with Halprin's, it still has some problems. The most obvious is that the monument is designed to the scale of Roosevelt Island, not to the scale of the city. In New York, the water is part of the city landscape. A couple of rows of linden trees on a sloping terrace and twelve-foot walls do not pack much punch when viewed from a great distance. What's more, this is an essentially horizontal design. What New York City needs is a towering colossus, a stunning landmark-monument to Roosevelt, and the south end of Roosevelt Island would make a superb venue. A classical solution, which Kahn would have rejected out of hand, would be to place a statue of Roosevelt on a lofty column.

Kahn's insistence on abstract geometries similarly weakens the design. For inspiration from ancient architecture, Kahn always preferred the primitive Greek temples of Paestum to the refined proportions and decoration of the later Parthenon--which is not necessarily a debilitating choice for an architect. But at Paestum one experiences a bodily empathy with the stocky columns--the manifestation of an anthropomorphism alien to the incipient columns of Kahn's memorial room.

Similarly, when Kahn saw Roman ruins, all he saw were walls, not the surface enrichment that was integral to their conception. The use of ornament, he imagined, would somehow negate the modern transformation of architecture. Kahn was determined to discover a new home for architecture, founded on normative and essentially impersonal principles of design. All by his lonesome.

IT WAS A HOPELESSLY paradoxical quest, of course, and failure was foreordained. Kahn has had few followers, and his impact on modernist practice has been limited. Still, he got far more mileage out of his rudimentary architectural vocabulary than other modernists working in similarly reductive idioms. His Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth (1972) is a skillful reiteration of the barrel vault. Intimate in scale, its galleries are enclosed by walls of travertine and crowned with gray concrete vaults slit down the middle by skylights. Gracefully configured metal armatures with fine mesh screens obscure the skylight openings. Light is softly diffused along the surfaces of the concrete vaults, making them look like they're floating. (A classical architect would have hired a painter to achieve this illusionistic suspension of gravity--an alternative Kahn would of course never have entertained.) The upshot is that Kimbell's vaulted spaces are physically welcoming to a degree rarely encountered in modernist architecture.

Absent from Kahn's oeuvre are the pyrotechnics that, now more than ever, ravage modernist architecture thanks to the likes of Frank Gehry, Rem Koolhaas, and Thom Mayne. Even an architect like I.M. Pei, considered a sober exponent of rationalist geometries, falls far short of Kahn's standard in this regard. Pei's endless reiterations of the triangle in his East Building of Washington's National Gallery, speciously justified by the building's irregular site, are so much tedious gimmickry. The East Building doesn't hold a candle to the Kimbell.

But the sculptural histrionics also represent a reaction against the rigidity of the formal order pursued by Kahn and other mid-century modernists. Kahn's architecture might well have escaped this rigidity had it been grounded in the human figure as the source of geometric order. Lacking this foundation, his buildings are often agglomerations rather than compositions. Moreover, Kahn's architecture works best in settings where it can be uncompromisingly self-referential, as with his most monumental work, the spectacular government complex in Bangladesh completed nearly a decade after his death. (Memorable images of this complex appear in the 2003 film documentary My Architect by his son, Nathaniel.)

By contrast, Kahn's street frontages in New Haven, for his Yale Center for British Art (1974) and his earlier addition to the Yale Art Gallery (1953), are blank and lifeless to the point of self-parody. The timeless logic of an embellished façade was beyond him.

The architectural geometries of Kahn's Roosevelt monument are also rather rigid. The design is all straight lines; there are no curves. One wonders whether the large, quite possibly rather stark cobblestone forecourt, where the walkways and the garden promenade converge, would really form a graceful transition to the "room." And the narrow enclosure Kahn placed at the southern end of the room is awkward. Sunk three feet below the main space, this trough, which would probably make a fine receptacle for wind-blown trash, is bordered on the other side by a parapet wall three feet high. It is a ham-handed way of securing an open vista down the river.

KAHN'S PROJECT IS NOT DEAD. The Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute, which is raising funds for the memorial, intends to take the fullest possible advantage of any publicity the Cooper Union exhibition generates. One wonders if they are right to do so. It's not easy to think of a finer modernist design than this. But at the end of the day, Kahn's design lacks grandeur. Franklin Roosevelt's memory deserves better than the rock-pile playground in Washington's West Potomac Park. But it also deserves better than even Louis I. Kahn could manage.

Catesby Leigh is author of the forthcoming Monumental America.