The Louis Kahn Park
This past Sunday's expedition was to Roosevelt Island, which can be reached from Manhattan's East Side by an airborne tram, which flies over the East River from a station at Second Avenue and 60th Street to a central location on the small island. (The tram trip is an excitement in itself: I don't think there can be another urban view, anywhere in the world, as novel as the low-flying return to Manhattan, which descends in over city streets.) Our initial aim was to walk along the west coast of the island and get a great view of Manhattan, but when some friends told us about the recently opened Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park, designed by Louis Kahn but left unbuilt for many years, we made that our destination.
The park occupies the southernmost tip of Roosevelt Island, and it immediately adjoins an old ruin of a nineteenth-century smallpox hospital, suitably preserved in all its historic spookiness. Just past this noble wreck, you can slip through the gates into the Louis Kahn park itself, which rises in front of you as the land narrows to a point. Imagine something like the Vietnam Memorial, only in white, with a low wall that starts just above human height and gradually approaches ground level as you walk along it. Imagine an Aztec pyramid flattened and narrowed, with triangular steps rising briefly at the front end, and with a long ramp at the far end that eventually meets the water. Imagine a thick-walled fort, with very thin chinks between each massive stone, through which you can peer at a thread-sized section of either Manhattan or Brooklyn. All of these are elements in the Kahn design--as are two double-rows of stately trees leading up the central avenue, a plaque quoting FDR on the "four freedoms" (which included not only the usual American "freedom of speech," but the much more socialist "freedom from want"), and marvelous views in every direction.
It was lovely to see the site for the first time in the light of a late fall afternoon, but now I am anxious to go back in the early summer, when the trees will have leafed out and the monument will have given way, in part, to the park. Considering the size of Louis Kahn's reputation among architects, there are not all that many examples of his built work in America (the Yale Center for British Art, the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, and the Salk Institute in southern California are among them), so it is particularly pleasing to have one of them right here in New York. If you want to find out more about this great artist's work, I highly recommend the movie My Architect, a very personal documentary made by his son, Nathaniel Kahn. This movie is so good that I went to it twice in 2003, the year it came out; and now that I have seen the FDR park, I think it's probably time to watch it again.