Shared memorial

An aerial view of Roosevelt Island and the memorial park at its tip

It is not unusual that the subject of a memorial should be long dead. Last year the Martin Luther King memorial was unveiled in Washington, DC, 44 years after King’s death. Lincoln only got his memorial 57 years after he died; Jefferson had to wait 117 years. Eisenhower is still waiting for a memorial designed by Frank Gehry. But it is slightly more unusual that the designer should have died too. That is the case with Four Freedoms Park, the new memorial to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, which was unveiled earlier this month, not in Washington, DC but in the president’s home town, New York City. The architect was Louis Kahn, one of the true greats of modernist American architecture and a designer whose work is worth waiting for.

The memorial stands on the tip of Roosevelt Island, a long strip of land, partly landfill from the rubble of building Manhattan, which sits in the fast-flowing East river roughly opposite the United Nations building. The tip of the island looks out to the ocean, towards Europe, and the memorial is inspired by Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms” speech of 1941, which was conceived as a prelude to dragging a still reluctant US into what the president perceived as a just war.

Roosevelt’s Freedoms were of speech and of worship, as well as freedom from want and from fear: these are inscribed into a wall on the site. They were also the inspiration behind the UN’s declaration of human rights, and the UN HQ’s glassy tower glistens in the background.

The memorial was designed in 1973. Kahn had just finished the sublime Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas and the Yale Center for British Art, but he was heavily in debt and with a personal life in tatters (poignantly documented in the film My Architect directed by his son Nathaniel in 2003). Kahn died of a heart attack in a toilet at New York’s Penn Station in 1974, apparently with the drawings for the memorial under his arm.

Now completed to Kahn’s exacting specifications (and at a cost of $53m), the memorial is perhaps as much a monument to one of America’s most enigmatic architects as it is to one of its greatest presidents. It is a mesmeric design, a rare confluence of architecture and sculpture executed in huge slabs of snowy white granite, each block almost megalithic in scale. A 100ft wide stair rises to a small garden framed by slender linden trees, which tapers to a tip where a giant bronze bust of Roosevelt sits suspended in a chunky stone niche. A sward of green is planted to create a theatrical artificial perspective: its taper makes it appear as a pure rectangle from a central point.

At the end of the island, a small plaza encased in stone leads down to the water’s edge. There are no sounds, just the gulls, the lapping water, occasionally a honk of a horn from the huge tankers that slide by. It is a genuinely civic space, a place for the city: calm, exquisitely realised, open and generous. There is no sense of any of the compromises to commercialism or the protracted wrangling of conflicting public and private interests that have affected, say, the Ground Zero memorial.

It is reminiscent of Kahn’s monumental Salk Institute in San Diego with its bright, white landscape of hard stone and sharp steps. The forms are similarly archetypal, the blocks and steps, the enclosures and granite cobbles almost like abstracted ideas of building.

The site has a complex history. Framing the memorial from the land end is a grey, gothic-looking skeleton of a Victorian building. This was New York’s smallpox hospital, designed by James Renwick Jr (architect of St Patrick’s Cathedral), a memory of a time when the islands around New York were places of exile. There was also a prison here (where, among others, Emma Goldman, Mae West, Billie Holiday and Dutch Schultz were incarcerated). Between 1921 and 1973 this place was known as Welfare Island. Car-free, with cheap buses and reached by tramway or subway, it seems a slightly un-American island, an echo of a place that could have been.

Either way, it is a stunning memorial to both president and architect, a reminder of what can sometimes appear to be lost civic values. But then, perhaps – since this got built – not quite lost.

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