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Meditations on Light, Freedom, and Architecture: At Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park on a Sunday Afternoon

Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park, located at the south tip of Roosevelt Island, officially opened to the public on October 24, 2012, just a few days before the city was hit by Hurricane Sandy. What follows are pictures and thoughts from a visit to the park on the afternoon of Sunday, December 2, 2012.

The story of the park is long, but in short, architect Louis Kahn designed plans for this monument in the months before his death in 1974. After decades of unrealized plans and lack of financing, momentum to build Kahn's FDR memorial picked up a few years ago. Residents of Roosevelt Island were divided on whether or not this was a good idea. At the time, this site was a rare thing - a small, verdant patch of undeveloped land, a remnant of a primordial Mannahatta. Building on a green space in New York City with uncommon views of the surroundings was a tough decision. Especially if the thing in question was a big deal with many question marks.









But then there is Louis Kahn (1901- 1974). Though his monuments of 20th century architecture are few in number - Yale University Art Gallery, the Salk Institute in La Jolla, the National Assembly Building in Bangladesh, the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, among them - his designs soared to a sense of timelessness, permanence, a summoning of elemental basics. Light, volume, sky, room. But above all, light.

Kahn was a late bloomer, discovering in mid-career that the ruins of ancient Greece, Rome, and Egypt embodied the fundamental principles of the truth of the built environment. You couldn't argue with the classics.


It was somewhat warm on this particular afternoon, the first Sunday in December. The sun, sheathed behind clouds, cast its light on the southern tip of Roosevelt Island in a teasing radiance. The sun acted as if it wanted to play with Louis Kahn. Who can reveal God? The sun or the architect? Kahn once said, "The sun never knew how great it was until it struck the side of a building."

On this day, the sky and the light and the clouds over the East River and the monument became one and the same. The game was tied this day between Louis Kahn and the sun. 


A park sign at the entrance asks the visitor to engage in "quiet strolling." No rough stuff, no loud music, no boisterous banter. It's time to think about freedom. And, please, do so quietly.

As an aside, I would imagine that most fights for freedom have taken place with plenty of noise. I don't think the French Revolution or the American Revolution or any contemporary uprising anywhere in the world has been all that quiet.

But, there are many definitions of freedom, and if you listen - yes, please hush - you may be able to hear them.

You don't do the fighting for freedom here in the park. You think about what freedom means, and take the fight for it elsewhere.



Implicit in Kahn's design for the park is a summoning to a destination, an end point, a vanishing line. Guided by the heaviest of granite quarried in North Carolina - luminous, mysterious, transformed in the hues and tone of whatever time and season you visit - you are propelled to a destination.


An open room and New York City. That's Manhattan over there to the west.



Keep going to the vanishing point.


Four freedoms, says Franklin D. Roosevelt, from his State of the Union address on January 6, 1941. Freedoms "of" and freedoms "from" - within these definitions of "to" and "from," we find our basic disputes in American political discourse.

Many of us agree on freedom "of" as the right of every person to speak freely and to worship in their own way.

"Freedom from want," on the other hand, translates into a human right to a basic standard of living - food, clothes, housing. Franklin Roosevelt upheld this notion. Not everyone agrees. This contentious ideological argument permeates American politics. The debate about freedom from want will likely continue. 

Even more definitions of freedom are at play here.

You see, the Kahn-design memorial for FDR is so inspiring for freedom-loving peoples that apparently many individuals, having reached the south tip, are so overcome with freedom and joy that they want to keep going. A few leap up and onto the southernmost wall and then spring themselves over to further explore the rocky quarry below. This is some powerful architecture. And against park rules.

Because of these freedom-loving individuals, the New York State Parks, Recreation & Historic Preservation now staffs representatives on site to stop people from descending the final few steps of the memorial. The idea is to halt any impulse to leap up on the south wall and into Freedom Land.

In short, it's like in junior high school where a couple of kids did something stupid and out of bounds, and now everyone is grounded.


This huge bust of FDR on the right, impossible to discern in detail in this image, is by Jo Davidson (1883-1952). You may also know Davidson's sculpture of Gertrude Stein in Bryant Park.


The confluence of the elements on this particular Sunday and the design of the park encouraged deep retrospection and reverie. The diffuse light of the sun in a hazy atmosphere caused the buildings to lose individuated distinctions. They were reduced to rectangles and squares. The trees, bereft of leaves, revealed their anatomies.

(Insert your favorite inspiring thought here.)


I think I can say without hesitation that this is the greatest public space ever to be built in the middle of the East River.


The tall building in the distance was once known as Freedom Tower but now it's known as One World Trade Center, or 1WTC. In addition to 1 WTC, many public housing projects are within view of the park's southern focal point, symbols of that freedom from want. And to the west are more symbolically charged structures - the United Nations, the Empire State Building, the Chrysler Building. All the good buildings in the skyline go beyond real estate and speak to higher aspirations.

But, returning to the foreground of the park... Why does Four Freedoms Park feel so right? Part of the answer lies in the symmetry of trees, the security of granite, the elegance of geometry, and the confidence of an uncommon architect. 

Just look at that light.
______

Park hours are Thursday – Sunday, 9 am – 5 pm. www.fdrfourfreedomspark.org
Recommended transportation: The Roosevelt Island Tramway, the aerial tram that connects Manhattan and Roosevelt Island, offers sweeping views of the island, the East River, and the park.

Though sited on a vulnerable island in the East River, Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park was undamaged during Hurricane Sandy.

Images by Walking Off the Big Apple from Sunday afternoon, December 2, 2012.





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