By the time Four Freedoms Park opened on October 17—with a ribbon-cutting ceremony presided over by Bill Clinton, Michael Bloomberg, Andrew Cuomo, and Tom Brokaw—few architectural critics were finding flaws. On the contrary; the critical reviews bordered on the ecstatic.
“It gives New York nothing less than a new spiritual heart,” wrote Michael Kimmelman in the September 12 New York Times. “It creates an exalted, austere public space, at once like the prow of a ship and a retreat for meditation.”
“It is the first time a work of posthumous architecture has made me feel elated, not offended, and left me absolutely certain that the right thing had been done,”wrote Vanity Fair critic Paul Goldberger, after listing some of the sobering challenges that face anyone trying to realize a dead architect’s vision. “Kahn designed buildings that were modern and at the same time looked as if they had been there forever,” he added. “Build it in 1974, build it in 2012—when it is Louis Kahn it doesn’t seem quite to matter as much as it would with some other architect’s work.”
And yet little things, as well as big, mattered terribly to Kahn—from the precise texture of concrete or stone to the precision of its setting and its relationship to its surroundings. If God is in the details, so, too, is the Devil.
“Kahn’s architecture is hard,” says Gina Pollara, the project’s executive director, who had the formidable challenge of making sure the memorial was built just right and on time while steering it through the shoals of competing interpretations. “I’ve come to appreciate that all these little tiny things add up to a whole. As Beckett says, ‘Grain upon grain, one by one, and one day, suddenly, there’s a heap.’”
Kahn amid the conifers, 1973.
In a sense, Four Freedoms Park is a memorial to two men. One, of course, is Roosevelt, whose life and political career were still a tremendous source of inspiration for many in the early 1970s.
“Roosevelt was a person who didn’t want monuments,” says former Ambassador William vanden Heuvel, chair of Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park and the driving force behind the project. “He often said that the only monument he wanted was a slab of marble six-foot long and four-foot wide in front of the archives of the United States, with simply his name and dates on it. But I think the country felt that he was the greatest president in the 20th century. It had always been on my agenda to see if we could build a memorial to him.”
The park is also a memorial of sorts to Kahn, whose reputation as an architect’s architect in his lifetime has since swelled to include many casual but equally ardent admirers.
“For the design team, it was a Kahn project,” says Michael Rubenstein GAr’60 GCP’60 GFA’60, who served as the project architect in 1974-75 following Kahn’s death, and for several years as an unofficial consultant when the memorial came back to life. “And for the client it was a Roosevelt project. It’s really fascinating.”
Of course, there was a good deal of overlap between the two. Kahn, a Jewish immigrant from Estonia, had revered Roosevelt for his leadership and his championing of the common man—and for the employment opportunities his New Deal programs had provided. Sue Ann Kahn CW’61 recalls that when she was growing up, she was “continually told how important Roosevelt was for our country, for the world, and for our family.” Most of her father’s early architectural practice was devoted to “uplifting people’s lives through the enlightened design of public housing and community planning,” she adds, and “many of the projects he worked on or spearheaded were funded by Roosevelt’s Public Works Administration, Resettlement Administration, and other arms of the New Deal.”
Though she was only five years old on April 12, 1945, she remembers that evening well. The radio had been brought to the dining room. “Suddenly my mother, my parents, everybody stood up, silent, heads bowed. Dinner was abandoned. I was told that Roosevelt had died.”
Rubenstein was eight that night, and when he heard the news at a restaurant, he said to himself: “We have to build a monument to Roosevelt.”