Thursday, September 13, 2012

Putting the Roosevelt in Roosevelt Island

The long-awaited FDR monument opens on the southern end of Roosevelt Island next month, and the New York Times has a rosy review.

Photo courtesy of the New York Times.
The park — a memorial to Franklin Delano Roosevelt — was conceived four decades ago. The visionary architect who designed it died in 1974. The site, a landfill along one of the more dramatic stretches of waterfront in New York City, remained a rubble heap while the project was left for dead.

But in a city proud of its own impatience, perseverance sometimes pays off. Next month, on that triangular plot on the southern end of Roosevelt Island, the four-acre Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park will open, a belated and monumental triumph for New York and for everyone who cares about architecture and public space. 
Louis Kahn is the architect. He completed drawings for the park just before he died suddenly, in Pennsylvania Station, at 73. That Kahn’s plan survived periodic calls to privatize the government-owned property and build a hotel and fancy town houses, among other commercial proposals, proves the benefit of resisting short-term financial imperatives. In the end the value of the project goes far beyond dollars and cents. 
I'm looking forward to seeing the park, but I'm not sure building much-needed housing (in a place where the average apartment rents for almost $3,500) would have been a tragedy.

I also have a hard time summoning much excitement for anything designed by Louis Kahn, an architect associated with the Brutalist movement. I spent many hours in a Louis Kahn building — Bryn Mawr's Erdman Hall, where the offices of the Bi-College News were housed — and I don't have fond memories.

He designed Erdman as a "modern Scottish castle," which he somehow felt should look like an Eastern European penitentiary. If you like blocky, drab buildings made of bare concrete, you'll love Louis Kahn.

Since his death, the work of Kahn and his contemporaries hasn't aged well, and the general public never warmed to the style. It seems odd, then, that people would work so hard to preserve his legacy in 2012.

You also have to wonder if a less abstract FDR monument would have been more inspiring. After all, this is a wheelchair-bound man who became one of the most beloved presidents of the 20th century. The Four Freedoms monument won't show that.

Still, it's nice for Roosevelt Island to get a bona fide landmark. Now when people ask me where I live, I can say, "Home to a belated and monumental triumph for New York and for everyone who cares about architecture and public space!"