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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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.