To the west, lay a somehow insignificant cityscape: the stacked steel and glass profile of a floating Manhattan. We’re among 7700 tonnes of precision-cut gleaming white stone taken from 12,100 tonnes of quarried granite: an architect’s melding of modern imagination and ancient form, the 1.5-hectare Franklin D Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park.
I’m reminded of the bridge of a great white battleship. Roosevelt’s 1933 bronze bust stares into a cold wind straight off the North Atlantic. The bust sits in a three sided alcove on a raised table of solid granite; the walls 4m-tall. At half a tonne and 700mm high, the bust is larger than life.
Initially known as `Blackwell’, then `Welfare Island’, this island was finally advocated – by a 1970 New York Times editorial – as a fitting site for a monument to Roosevelt. The 3km-long by 240m-wide island was renamed yet again in 1973; the architect, Estonian-born Louis I Kahn, presenting his ambitious vision for a memorial to a president he revered.
I first heard of this place back in East Village. “Hey, what you got on today?” demanded Cam, an architecture student from Colorado and the owner of our gentrified studio apartment. “There’s somethin’ you just gotta see, man,” he pleaded. “A cool piece of work.” He was praising Four Freedoms Park, pulling a booklet from a cluttered kitchen shelf and slapping it down on the table. “You are sooo lucky, dude, this park has only been open since October!”
It was Franklin Roosevelt who addressed US Congress in 1941, alerting the country to the threat of Nazi world domination and the necessity for war, passionately appealing to Americans’ belief in freedom. Cam, less than half my age, reminded me that Roosevelt was struck down with infantile paralysis at age 39, was elected President four times and led the USA through the Great Depression and WW2. To reinforce his point, our young landlord took a faded cutting from a battered folder: a black-and-white picture of a suited and hatted man reading a newspaper while standing by a store on the corner of West 40th Street. The caption carried dire news from across the Atlantic. ‘Nazi Army Now 75 Miles from Paris – May 18, 1940’. That night – with Cam out partying – I shared a bottle of his cognac with my girlfriend, absorbed by the Four Freedoms story.
It’s winter and we’ve checked out the New York weather forecast, taking Cam’s advice and heading for the subway next morning. Alighting at the Island, we’ve walked south along the Manhattan side of the East River shoreline, a paved path edged by bare trees and park seats, under Queensboro Bridge and past the Coler-Goldwater Hospital. We’ve come to a gate in a black iron picket fence, passing the stone walled ruins of a smallpox hospital; a reminder of the island’s past life, and a soon to be visitor centre.
The park entrance rises like a Mayan pyramid – a wide flight of pale granite stairs – at its foot a row of five copper-beech trees aligned with the stone ruins. At the top is a raised plaza enclosed in a low granite wall. It’s an elongated triangle, with a central panel of lawn and surrounding paths of 261,000 cobblestones. Kahn’s grand funnel design has directed our line of sight between the paved avenues of 120 littleleaf linden trees to the intended focal point, the bust of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
New York City purchased the island in 1928. The road to the completion of Four Freedoms Park was tortuous, with a 99-year lease approved forty years later. A Kahn model was delivered to New York in 1974. The next year the project was put on hold due to a city budget crisis.
Congress finally passed a bill to proceed with Kahn’s plans in 1981 and basic site clearing and compaction commenced in 1994.
Kahn gleaned inspiration from the ruins of ancient Greece, Italy and Egypt; monumental, monolithic, bold and obvious. He knew great monuments take time; explaining in 1973 : “I had this thought that a memorial should be a Room and a Garden… the garden a gathering of nature. And the room was the beginning of architecture… an extension of self.”
I walk around Roosevelt’s bronze bust. On the back wall, the President’s fateful words include his base demands: freedom of speech and expression, freedom of worship, freedom from want and freedom from fear. The text is bold V-cut letters, the words made even more dramatic – if that’s possible – by the contractors having cut the text by hand, and the fact that if Kahn’s project had gone ahead as planned in the 70s, the work would have been undertaken by the actual stonemason’s father.
Now we’re inside Kahn’s ‘room’, my back to Roosevelt’s words, the rectangular space defined by block walls to the east and west, but open to the sky. Steps lead down to a ha-ha with a low wall to the south; no railing to restrict the view. At the top of the steps we’re on the southern tip of the island, the United Nations Headquarters sits to the west, over on the Midtown shore. A tug pushes a barge, skirting Manhattan docks and heading downtown. I wait for the sound of the wash against the wall where it drops into the darker grey of the East River.
Ambling back on the east side of the island we gaze across at Long Island City. By now it’s late afternoon. We take the aerial tramway from Roosevelt Island in the shadow of Queensboro bridge, across East River to Uptown Manhattan.
The tramcar finally approaches the docking station, both of us pondering the fate of Louis Kahn. He was never to see his Four Freedoms Park even begun, having died back in 1974; collapsing of a heart attack in the restroom of a New York train station, his body unidentified for three days due to a crossed-out address on his passport.