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The Power of Perspective and Light in Louis Kahn’s FDR Four Freedoms Park

by Allison Meier on November 1, 2012

Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

Editor’s Note: All photos and observations were taken and made before Post-tropical cylcone Sandy swept through New York on Monday.

Wrapping the tip of Roosevelt Island that points out to the sea, the Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park is a realm of stillness and meditation unlike anything else in the city. Designed as a memorial to the 32nd president, it is now just as much a call to remember its architect: the late lover of form and light, Louis Kahn. It is also long overdue, by almost four decades, from when it was first proposed in 1973. Yet even without all of its history attached, the most significant role of the completed park may be as a monument to the contemplative power of public space.

FDR Four Freedoms Park

The park opened to the public last Thursday, and remarkably little has changed from Kahn’s original plan, which was his last design and only structure in New York City. In 1974, the architectural legend died anonymously of a heart attack in Penn Station, with drawings of the memorial said to have been found in the briefcase he was carrying, helping to identify his body. After his death, the park was dragged down with New York’s failing finances, and construction on the former landfill site only started on March 29, 2010.

FDR Four Freedoms Park

Despite Kahn’s long absence, the park is a faithful construction of what made his monumental architecture so compelling. While not as astounding as his National Parliament of Bangladesh, started in 1962 and incorporating lakes into a geometric monolith, or as otherworldly as his Salk Institute in California, a complex of glowing symmetry dating to 1962, it is a beautiful, if belated, endnote to his career. There are his plays with light and form, familiar to anyone who has visited his naturally lit Kimbell Art Museum in Forth Worth, and through them the drawing out of warmth from hard materials. There are the striking vistas and perspectives, here most moving when you enter the park from the stairs or the sides, the narrowing shape of the triangular space pulling your eye with an infinity effect. And there is the tremendous sense of peace and calm draped quietly over four acres of grass and stone.

FDR Four Freedoms Park, looking north

The Four Freedoms Park also has a character that will change with the seasons. When I visited last Saturday, the memorial was dusted with the yellow leaves of the Linden trees that line its angled paths (and have hopefully survived the harsh winds of Sandy), while the dark clouds on the edge of the coming storm cast the lightly mottled granite in a dusty grey. Other times it will be sleeked by rain or illuminated by sunrises.

The subtle hues of the modernist park are perfect for the open sky at the end of the island in the East River, but the space isn’t entirely separated from the city around it, with the buildings of Queens and Manhattan rising on either side. Even the old 19th-century smallpox hospital at the island’s northern end is incorporated into the view, and someday that abandoned and ivy-laced James Renwick, Jr. building will become a visitor’s center. The park constantly asks that you think about the places around you, but from a position of meditative calm. Even the High Line, New York’s other park that places you in but above the busy city, doesn’t remove you from the chaos completely like this.

Bronze sculpture of Franklin D. Roosevelt by Jo Davidson

The culmination of the Four Freedoms Park is a bust of FDR that appears to float up from a granite chair. A stretch of the imagination might recall the president’s confinement to a wheelchair, but it’s better seen as a careful contrast between Kahn’s formidable block framing and the naturalist realism of the sculpture by Jo Davidson. (Although it’s worth pointing out that there is some irony in the fact that not all of the memorial is accessible to the disabled.)

Not part of Kahn’s design, the bronze head was sculpted after a model made in 1933 by Davidson as he trailed the president around the White House. Davidson was prolific in portraiture and renowned for putting his sitters at ease, who also included Charles Lindbergh, Helen Keller, Albert Einstein, Gandhi, and Gertrude Stein. The statue literally puts a face on the memorial, detracting a little from Kahn’s concentration on geometry, and although I think the park could have stood without it, it does add something approachable if all those granite blocks feel too heavy.

View from the end of the FDR Four Freedoms Park

The choice to honor Roosevelt in this particular location goes back to when Roosevelt Island had the unappealing name of “Welfare Island,” adopted in 1921 as an intended improvement over the previous name, Blackwell Island. The island was then best known for its mental asylums, quarantine hospitals, and prisons, but NYC Mayor John Lindsay imagined it as an attractive residential community, and what better name than that of one of the most popular presidents of the 20th century? To go along with its new moniker, Lindsay advocated including a memorial to Roosevelt that “would face the sea he loved, the Atlantic he bridged, the Europe he helped to save, the United Nations he inspired.”

Text from “Four Freedoms” speech

The “Four Freedoms” of the park is a reference to Roosevelt’s stirring 1941 speech, in which he looked to the future of “a world founded upon four essential human freedoms: ‘freedom of speech and expression,’ ‘freedom of every person to worship God in his own way,’ ‘freedom of want,’ and ‘freedom from fear.'” An extract of the speech laying out these freedoms is etched into the back of the granite enclosing the bronze head and is the only explanatory text in the park, which is otherwise free from anything didactic and leaves you to your own thoughts.

FDR Four Freedoms Park

FDR Four Freedoms Park

It will be interesting to see how the public interacts with Four Freedoms Park, as it is not exactly a typical park (no food or drinks other than water allowed, and definitely no sprawling on the pristine grass or throwing a frisbee across the granite embankments), nor is it a somber memorial like those to other presidents in DC, with their columns and obelisks that suggest mausoleums. It’s a place that only asks for some mental silence, and, while transporting, maintains a directness and connection to its surroundings.

Besides Kahn’s other buildings, which aren’t numerous for an architect of his magnitude (as sometimes happens when your work is as much modernist sculpture as structure), it shares something with places such as the Walter Benjamin memorial in Spain, a haunting bronze portal embedded into a cliff in Portbou near where the philosopher killed himself during World War II to avoid the concentration camps. The Benjamin memorial has a dark passage leading down to a pane of glass facing the waves; steps at Four Freedoms Park seem to lead you into a reflecting pool just before the East River. Although much less harrowing, the experience is still a bit surreal, and contributes to the overall introspection composed by Kahn’s memorial to the president who governed the country through some of the most torrential moments of the 20th century, from the Great Depression to World War II.

The Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park is on the southern point of Roosevelt Island and opened to the public on October 24. 

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