The Magazine

A Hidden Monument

Roosevelt Island commemorates its namesake.

Apr 22, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 30 • By JAMES GARDNER
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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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