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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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.