“Only a very small part of architecture belongs to art: the tomb and the monument. Everything else that fulfills a function is to be excluded from the domain of art.” These words were written by modernist architect and critic Adolf Loos more than one hundred years ago. Loos was a man of complex opinions but he hit on an essential idea: there is something so glorious, so freeing, and perhaps so vain, about a tomb or a monument that sets it apart from normal architecture. We can judge it as an artwork without the functionalist critiques we might level against another structure.
Forty years ago, Louis Kahn died in Penn Station with the final designs for a monument in his briefcase: the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park. FDR had played a major role early in Kahn’s career when his the New Deal programs funded houses that Kahn would design. This work sustained Kahn and his family when he was just beginning to practice. In 1972, two years before Kahn’s death, the architect was asked to design a monument to commemorate FDR’s a famous speech on the human freedoms of speech and worship, as well as human freedoms from fear and need. While Kahn is renowned for his enduring geometric forms, something in no short supply here, this particular design is comprised of two simple spaces: a room and a garden. These were, in Kahn’s words, the point of departure for the monument.
The result is a muscular spatial experience, one that inexorably brings the eye and the body towards an enormous floating bust of FDR and patio overlooking the East River, Manhattan, and Brooklyn. The entire design is constructed of pure granite, blurring the line between architecture and landscape. The final room is sized just above human scale, as if intended for a giant, though not to a point that alienates one’s comfort. The light on that cloudy day was particularly extreme in its fluctuations, making the granite dynamic and otherworldly. Ultimately, the monument’s strong sense of compression and expansion, along with its physically massive qualities, lends that final room an intense sense of contemplation. The Four Freedoms Park was executed by Mitchell/Giurgola Architects and opened two years and a day before this visit.
All text © Zachary Edelson