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Kahn’s Franklin D. Roosevelt Monument

Below is an amazing article on the soon to be realised Franklin D. Roosevelt Monument designed by Louis Kahn 38 years after he died. This memorial will be just one of only a handful of Kahn creations in this world and New York’s first. Paul Goldberger, former architecture critic and editor of the New Yorker describes Kahn as being like a baseball player that rarely goes up to bat but when he does he hits a home run almost all the time. Like a deceased artist of repute whose works tends to increase in value once they have left this mortal earth, this project for New York will be a landmark, an architectural gift to the city from one of the worlds long gone masters, it is sure not to disappoint.


SUE ANN KAHN vividly remembers hearing the news of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s death in 1945, while eating dinner at her grandmother’s house. Her father, the architect Louis I. Kahn, had turned on the radio in the dining room, an unprecedented breach of decorum. The whole family stood up to observe a moment of silence. “I didn’t understand what it was all about,” said Ms. Kahn, only a child at the time. “But I knew something momentous had just happened.”

Years later, in 1972, Louis Kahn, widely recognized as one of America’s most original modern architects, set to work creating a monument dedicated to Roosevelt for New York City. Designed to adorn the southernmost tip of Roosevelt Island, the memorial – a double row of trees narrowing to a single stone room open to sky and sea – framed views of the harbor and skyline with the simple but stirring monumentality of a Greek temple.

Although Kahn completed the design, and a local architect prepared the documents needed for construction, the memorial was never built, the victim of a city fiscal crisis. The Franklin D. Roosevelt Monument turned out to be one of the last projects completed by Kahn, who died while traveling in 1974. His body was found unattended in the men’s room at Pennsylvania Station. A notebook with sketches and jottings about the memorial was found with his belongings.

Now the Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation, the state-appointed organization that runs the island, has commissioned a new design by a New York landscape designer for the 14-acre site, known as Southpoint Park. Taking into account feedback from residents and visitors, the design would substitute the granite memorial and overarching linden trees of Kahn’s plan with a lawn for 7,000 spectators to view performances on a removable stage. There would also be a sledding hill and a skate pond.

Devotees of Roosevelt and of Kahn are hoping that it is not too late to reconsider Kahn’s 2.8-acre memorial as part of the 14-acre site. With renewed interest in the art of memorial-making (because of plans for ground zero) and in the work of Kahn (because of a film made last year by his son, Nathaniel), the time is finally ripe, they say, to realize Kahn’s plan.

Peter Reed, a curator at the Museum of Modern Art who worked on the 1992 Kahn show at the museum, described the memorial project as “a great opportunity for New York City to get a building by Kahn.”

“It addresses in architecture,” he said, “the same spirit of optimism that Roosevelt expressed in his leadership.”

Beginning Monday, a show at Cooper Union will allow a larger audience to see for the first time much of the project’s original documentation, including Kahn’s drawings, the first presentation model, the sketchbook found at his death and construction documents made on waxed linen by his associate architects, Mitchell/Giurgola of New York. At a symposium on Jan. 25, historians and architects will consider the project and changing ideas of monumentality.

“Of all the unbuilt projects, this is the one that really could be done, and now, more than ever, should be done,” said Nathaniel Kahn, whose film “My Architect,” tracking the indelible imprint left by his brilliant but emotionally opaque father on family, colleagues and the world, was nominated for an Academy Award last year. “Surely that incredible site cannot be given over to just another public space. It has to be something really special. New York City needs a great monument to Roosevelt.”

But those opposed to the memorial say supporters waited too long. “Kahn’s memorial was played out in a different time, a different era, a different world,” said Herbert Berman, president of the Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation. “It was right for 30 years ago, not for now.” Today, he said, those who live on Roosevelt Island are interested in less formal uses for the land.

In a survey, residents complained that the memorial would cost too much, that the trees in the Kahn proposal would block their front-row view of Fourth of July fireworks and that the granite structure was too severe.

Further interviews revealed that residents enjoyed the disrepair that characterized the site, especially the ruins of a smallpox hospital built in the 1850′s when the island was used to quarantine the sick. But locals said they also wanted the park to be a place for contemplation, not just for sporty recreation. More than a fifth of the island’s 9,500 residents are handicapped (patients, outpatients and former patients from the Coler-Goldwater Specialty Hospital). There are many playing fields for children elsewhere on the island.

Last April, the operating corporation invited the Trust for Public Land, a national nonprofit organization that helps communities protect and conserve land by developing parks and recreational activities, to come up with new proposals for attracting people to the park and to the island.

In November the trust presented the operating corporation with “Wild Gardens/Green Rooms,” a picturesque park designed by Mark K. Morrison, a local landscape designer who is currently working on security fencing for the United Nations, as well as on numerous Manhattan playgrounds. The design includes a cafe in the ruins of the smallpox hospital and an earth mound providing enough contour for sledding in winter. The removable stage at the edge of a large lawn would be located at the southernmost tip, where Kahn put his granite room open to the sea.

The 14-acre “Wild Gardens” would cost approximately $34 million to complete, with a first phase planned at $10 million needed to stabilize the collapsing hospital ruins and clear pathways on the west side to the now inaccessible point. That’s $4 million more than Kahn’s 2.8-acre memorial design would cost, according to a revised budget prepared in 2003 for the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute by the Plaza Construction Corporation.

In February the Trust for Public land will present “Wild Gardens” to the board of directors at the Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation for final approval; the board will then seek the necessary financing from public and private sources.

“Louis Kahn would have done it differently if he were alive today,” said Charles McKinney, the consultant in charge of the Roosevelt Island park proposal for the Trust for Public Land. “He was well known for his concerns about creating communal spaces, and he would have understood the importance of this community’s concerns, and he would have responded.”

“Hundreds of thousands of people see the island from their apartment windows or their cars and are intrigued,” he continued. “Some take trams out to see it, but when they get there, nothing happens. There needs to be something for them to look at and to do.”

Certainly, the mandate was different 30 years ago. Kahn’s commission was part of an ambitious island redevelopment plan begun by the New York State Urban Development Corporation. The island, then known as Welfare Island, It had been not only a quarantine spot, but also a prison, a lunatic asylum and a quarry.

The plan, announced by Mayor John V. Lindsay in September 1973, was to turn the island into a varied-income urban utopia (along the lines of the planned community in Reston, Va.), with the Roosevelt memorial, the only one in New York City, as its centerpiece and chief attraction.

Kahn was inspired by Roosevelt’s famous “Four Freedoms” speech (about freedom from want, freedom to worship, freedom from fear and freedom of speech) delivered to Congress on Jan. 6, 1941, at one of the darkest hours of the war, after France had fallen, but before Pearl Harbor. As he developed his design, Kahn, an émigré from Estonia, was keenly aware of the United Nations’ presence right across the river.

“Roosevelt said he didn’t want any memorial, only a plaque in front of the National Archives” in Washington, said William vanden Heuvel, a chairman of the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute. “But the ‘Four Freedoms’ speech was very much part of how he thought of the world he wanted to see.” With the announcement of the plan, the island was renamed Roosevelt Island.

Kahn worked on the design for about a year, said Harriet Pattison, a landscape designer (and Nathaniel Kahn’s mother) who worked with Louis Kahn on the project. All Kahn’s revisions, she added, were aimed at making the design simpler and more timeless.

The site was to be on an elevated platform of land – arduous earth-moving work was done in the mid-1990′s in anticipation of the Kahn plan’s being realized – so that a grand staircase could be positioned as a threshold. (At that time, Mitchell/Guirgola also added ramps for handicap access.) From the top of the stairs, a wide lawn would line both sides with rows of linden trees, narrowed to the point. There, looking out to sea, a square room would be built of monumental granite blocks standing side by side, with a one-inch gap allowing sun to filter through. Two parallel walls were to stand 12 feet high, but there would be no roof. On one wall, the “Four Freedoms” speech would be inscribed. There was also talk of a statue and a bust of Roosevelt. On the side facing south toward the harbor, the room was to be left open, with a low wall for sitting. At high tide, water would rise up stone banks, and the room would appear from a distance to be almost floating.

“Kahn made monuments that address nature like the ancients did, with a sense of the infinite,” said Michael Lewis, a professor of art at Williams College who has written the introduction for the Cooper Union exhibition catalog, noting that monumentality was a subject always on this architect’s mind. (Kahn designed several memorials, including the Memorial to Six Million Jewish Martyrs in Battery Park.) None were built. “But this was the most important of all his monuments, summing up 50 years of his thinking about it,” Mr. Lewis said. “It was the ripest of all his monuments and it would be a coup for New York City to have it.”

In addition to the drawings from the Kahn archive in Philadelphia, which are rarely shown in public, the exhibition at Cooper Union will include a digital projection showing Kahn’s memorial as it would look on Roosevelt Island, against a backdrop of New York City as it would appear in 2007, complete with the new Queens West housing development just across the river.

Mr. Berman at the Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation said that the next step was to try to secure state financing to go forward with the “Wild Gardens” proposal, while supporters of Kahn’s Roosevelt Memorial said that theyd hope the exhibition would attract enough attention to revive serious interest in building Kahn’s plan.

Kahn would probably have been philosophical about the new twist of fate for his last monument design. At a lecture last year about his unbuilt works, Ms. Pattison read a statement by Kahn.

“That which is not built is not really lost,” he wrote. “Once its value is established, its demand for presence is undeniable. It is merely waiting for the right circumstances.”

Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company



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