Years ago, I lived in a Manhattan apartment overlooking the East River and the Gothic ruins of the old smallpox hospital on Roosevelt Island. The obsessive designer in me fixated on this long-neglected space, wondering why the city never developed something worthy of its proximity to the UN and the sleek East Side towers.
Smallpox Hospital, Roosevelt Island
Well, apparently I’d missed a few memos. This very spot is about to debut as the Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park, based on a design by the late, brilliant architect Louis Kahn. Kahn was commissioned for the work in 1973 and completed his design before the
city’s near-bankruptcy stalled construction. He died suddenly in 1974, and the project went into a decades-long limbo.
Kahn’s concept for this public space took shape around Roosevelt’s iconic speech outlining a vision for a world “freedom of speech and expression, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear.” He channeled the symmetry and weight of FDR’s words into a granite “room,” an open-air plaza with twelve foot high granite walls, each separated by a single inch.
Below is one of Kahn’s original models for the park, which was faithfully adapted by the Four Freedoms Park Conservancy.
In March 2010 – 36 years after Kahn’s passing – the city broke ground on his final project:
The park officially opens on October 24, but the Four Freedoms Park Conservancy has teased the unveiling with these images:
Here’s what Michael Kimmelman of the New York Times wrote in his recent preview of the park:
“It gives New York nothing less than a new spiritual heart. That’s to say it creates an exalted, austere public space, at once like the prow of a ship and a retreat for meditation. It’s a memorial, perhaps naïvely optimistic but uplifting and confident, unlike the one at ground zero. It is as solemn as the Roosevelt wartime speech it honors, a call to safeguard the freedoms of speech and worship and the freedoms from want and fear.
From inside the great, open granite enclosure that Kahn called the “room” at the tip of the island, a long fly ball away from the United Nations, a visitor looks out over the city and the churning waters of the East River in the direction of the Statue of Liberty, the ocean and Europe. It is the long view that Roosevelt had for America.”
Great ideas beget great design. I can’t wait to see it live, although the view from my old place would be spectacular…
Image credits as linked