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A Hidden Monument

Roosevelt Island commemorates its namesake.

Apr 22, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 30 • By JAMES GARDNER
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New York
Nearly 40 years after his death, the legendary architect Louis Kahn (1901-1974) has finally completed his first project in New York City. A monument to Franklin Delano Roosevelt known as Four Freedoms Park, it stands at the southern tip of Roosevelt Island, a skinny strip of land in the East River that stretches for two miles between Manhattan and Queens.

Bust of FDR at Four Freedoms Park

Bust of FDR at Four Freedoms Park

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Roosevelt Island is a curious place. Most New Yorkers have never been there, even though it lies no further than a single city block from either of the boroughs that flank it, with a tramway linking it to one, a bridge to the other, and a subway to both. Yet it could just as well occupy a different space-time continuum for all that the rest of the city seems to know or care about it. Indeed, there is something weirdly appropriate about the fact that Kahn’s monument should be completed so many decades after it was conceived: For it really does seem—culturally speaking—as though everything happens there 30 or 40 years after it reaches the rest of the world. But now, with the completion of the memorial, and with preparations for a new technological campus belonging to Cornell University, the locals dare to hope that finally they may receive the respect—and the tourist traffic—that has long eluded them. 

Once famous for its psychiatric wards, Roosevelt Island was known as Welfare Island until 1973, when it received its present name and began to be transformed according to a master plan designed by Philip Johnson. Although it has seen development over the past decade, Roosevelt Island feels like a theme park for every superannuated architectural and urbanistic idea of the 1970s—hardly an auspicious era for New York City, or for architecture in general. The dominant stylistic idiom of the day was Brutalism, whose muscular manifestos in bare, reinforced concrete once seemed like the last word in architectural probity and civic virtue. And while Brutalism’s presence on Manhattan was always relatively modest and tactical, Roosevelt Island represents its purest and most committed expression on the East Coast of North America: The street that runs up its northern half is arrayed on either side with a seemingly interminable sequence of pallid concrete mediocrities by the likes of José Luis Sert and Philip Johnson himself.

At a purely tactile and textural level, Brutalism’s exposed concrete appears (to this viewer) to be singularly ill-suited to human sensibilities. And although no architect ever used it more inventively or evocatively than Louis Kahn, even he was not entirely successful in making the medium sing. The Yale Art Gallery and the Yale Center for British Art, his first and last projects respectively, surely represent the best case that can be made for Brutalism’s experiential viability. Yet even they are challenging to inhabit, and age, which enhances traditional architecture, has only diminished them. 

The new Roosevelt Monument, however, is a different story. Perhaps because it partakes equally of architecture, landscaping, and sculpture, and uses stone rather than concrete, it manages to free itself from that sense of drab utilitarianism that so often vitiates the Brutalist style.

On account of its location at the southernmost tip of an island which—infrastructure notwithstanding—remains fairly difficult to access, you don’t happen upon it fortuitously, as you might happen upon the monuments on, say, the Washington Mall. Rather, one is required to undertake a special, dedicated journey in order to see it at all. And to see the monument at all is to inhabit it: It can be descried from the shores of Manhattan and Queens, but makes little visual impression from either perspective. Even once you reach the premises, it coyly conceals itself as long as possible, for its dominant aesthetic principle is deferred revelation. 

As you approach from the north, your field of vision is overwhelmed by an expanse of 24 steps that afford no hint of what, if anything, lies beyond. Only after you have arduously mounted those steps do you discover a triangular patch of manicured lawn flanked by rows of linden trees. Through a trick of perspective, the trees appear to extend to a vanishing point far in the distance, and only after you have arrived at that vanishing point do you find yourself standing before the large, disembodied head of FDR, based on the 1933 sculpture by Jo Davidson. Beyond the head is a sequence of pharaonic stone blocks that are 6 feet tall, 6 feet wide, 12 feet deep, and 36 tons apiece. On these are inscribed passages from the famous Four Freedoms speech that gives the park its name.

The park was conceived during the glory days of Minimalism, with its solemn rejection of ornament, its preference for pure and elementary shapes, and its phenomenological inquiry into scale and perception. The postmodern FDR monument in Washington, with its life-sized simulacrum of the president in a wheelchair, together with “my little dog Fala,” is full of sly whimsy that would be unimaginable amid the late-Modernist sobriety of Four Freedoms Park. Neither the Minimalists nor the Brutalists had any sense of humor, or any aspirations to human warmth, and the high seriousness of Four Freedoms Park is more expressive, one suspects, of the seriousness with which Kahn took his own work than of a love for Franklin Roosevelt.

In this context, FDR’s disembodied head comes as something of a surprise, even though it surely exists harmoniously within its context. The original was sculpted by Davidson early in Roosevelt’s first term, when the president was 51 years old, and its aesthetics differ markedly from those of the rest of the park. If the monument itself was designed 40 years ago, the original head was sculpted 40 years before that. Perhaps for this reason, even if Kahn’s quest for sublimity is not always free of dullness or inadvertent comical effect, Davidson’s image of FDR is surprisingly moving. As colossal as the famous head of Constantine in Rome’s Palazzo dei Conservatori, it presents our 32nd president in such a way as to suggest his humanity and his exhaustion, his cunning and, ultimately, his decency.

Yet it is not quite apparent how many visitors will come to see this head, with its slightly drooping eyelids and the deep folds under its eyes. Rather, I suspect that many, if not most, will come to admire what is perhaps more essentially a monument to Louis Kahn—one that Roosevelt himself would probably not have greatly appreciated or understood. And for that reason, the Four Freedoms Park, notwithstanding some flashes of formal brilliance, cannot be counted a complete success.

James Gardner recently translated Vida’s Christiad (I Tatti Renaissance Library).

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