In this unreasonably hot and muggy weather in New York City, we’re all scrambling for some way to keep cool and freshen ourselves up a bit. Ideally, I’d like a sea breeze, but the city’s shoreline tends to be overcrowded in this season. Instead, you could head to the lesser-traveled Roosevelt Island, to the Four Freedoms Park – most especially to the southern tip of the park and island.
It’s rather fantastic, this park, for many reasons. It was designed by architect Louis Kahn – designer of numerous modernist works, including the Yale University Art Gallery, the Salk Institute in La Jolla, CA, the Richards Medical Research Laboratories, PA — the list goes on. His works, if they can be characterized by one work, are monumental, and the Four Freedoms Park is no exception. It’s massive, taking up the entire south portion of Roosevelt Island. Designed in a triangular shape, the park funnels visitors down the wide avenues on the sides or down the center of the grassy boulevard flanked by double rows of trees towards a 3,600 square-foot plaza containing a bust of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Surrounded by blocks of Mount Airy granite, inscribed with excerpts of Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms speech, the visitor is funneled ever further to the very tip of the park, opening out onto the East River, where a tip of the ocean is flanked by Manhattan and Brooklyn.
Kahn, during a 1973 lecture at Pratt, stated that he thought of the memorial as a “room and a garden […] the garden is somehow a personal nature, a personal kind of control of nature. And the room was the beginning of architecture […] the room wasn’t just architecture, but was an extension of self.” It’s a complex statement, and I could expand on the idea of humanity not being able to leave nature alone, that the idea of the room at the beginning of architecture is just an extension of that need to govern our surroundings, and that architecture is really quintessential proof of humanity’s need for control over every aspect of our environment (we’re really very insecure as a species), but I’d rather focus on the last part – the room as an extension of self. Because when he designed “the room” – the plaza at the end of the park – he thought of it in spatial terms, in how people who would be funneled down to the plaza would then move around it, how they would use the space and make it their own. But he went so far as to put excerpts of the Four Freedom’s speech on the walls – a speech generally seen as laying down basic rights of human beings. The words are writ large as if this were someone’s thoughts up for display – or perhaps the projection of the ideal self, who believes and adheres to the rights laid out in the original speech. By writing the words on those large blocks of granite, Kahn shows how literally the room can be an extension of the self, of the mind and our thoughts. And by placing them in a room that only shows you granite, sky, and open water, they’re put in sharp focus, and as a result the room’s words become a part of your self too.
Kahn never saw the park constructed – he died two years after creating the design, and the parks’ construction stalled until 2005, and wasn’t finished until October 2012. But he’s everywhere in the park, extending a sense of self throughout the monument. And in the process he creates a well-deserved break from the crammed New York cityscape.
Go, enjoy the breeze. Sit, relax, refresh yourself. It’s summer after all.
Architect: Louis I. Kahn
Location: Roosevelt Island, New York
Designed: 1972, Completed: October 2012
Four Freedoms Park Conservancy. “History.” 2012. Accessed July 15, 2016. http://www.fdrfourfreedomspark.org/overview
Kimmelman, Michael. “Decades Later, a Vision Survives.” The New York Times. September 12, 2012.