The Wrath Of Kahn

Posted: June 19th, 2014 | Filed under: Manhattan

It took nearly 40 years for Four Freedoms Park to be built on Roosevelt Island. Some of that was due to architect Louis I. Kahn’s death, some due to the City’s lousy finances, but the biggest reason is probably because the thing is a turd.

When the project was resurrected, my recollection was that there was this excitement about it being “Kahn’s last design” or some such. That’s basically the only thing going for it, and if it didn’t have some big name attached, you’d probably hate the thing.

There’s a lot of stupid shit going on, but the biggest sin of the memorial is how it unaccountably blocks a tremendous view of Midtown Manhattan with a bunch of granite:

Four Freedoms Park, Roosevelt Island, June 8, 2013

Were people in the 1970s this fucking stupid? Or were architects back then so full of themselves that they actually believed their special message about this, that or the other was so meaningful that it merited a permanent censorship of a beautiful vista?

This is from 2004 — my recollection was that you could walk out farther and that it was this wonderful experience of almost floating in the East River. The perspectives aren’t the same, but I think you get the idea, and I don’t think I zoomed in with the camera, either:

Southern Tip of Roosevelt Island, United Nations in Distance, June 16, 2004

Now here’s what you see if you want to look at the skyline from the tip of Roosevelt Island:

Four Freedoms Park, Roosevelt Island, June 8, 2013

It’s so fucking aggravating, and senseless, too. No modern architect would ever think to obscure one of the most unbelievable panoramas in the world with three feet of granite.

And to what end? For Franklin Roosevelt? Who gives a fuck about Franklin Roosevelt? I mean, seriously — is what we’re supposed to consider about FDR’s legacy really more important than a beautiful view? OK, I’ll answer that: let’s be clear, not even George Fucking Washington deserves to be able to obscure the skyline. And I find it impossible to believe that any president would think it was OK, either.

Four Freedoms Park, Roosevelt Island, June 8, 2013

Four Freedoms Park, Roosevelt Island, June 8, 2013

Four Freedoms Park, Roosevelt Island, June 8, 2013

Yes, somehow we’re supposed to bow at the menacing bust of FDR because it’s just too horrible to think we can just enjoy a nice spot at the tip of Roosevelt Island. No, seriously:

Kahn’s design makes perfect use of the triangular shape of the Park’s site, emphasizing it, and employing what could be called a forced perspectival parti to draw and focus the visitor’s gaze toward the colossal head of Roosevelt at the threshold to the ‘Room.’

If I recall correctly from my undergraduate Architecture Appreciation 103 class, “forced perspectival parti” is basically a fancy way of saying that despite the fact that one of the most iconic, stunning panoramas is just to your right, the architect demands that you ponder the FDIC. You know what? Fuck you. And the “room”? What happens in the “room” anyway? A reevaluation of the TVA? Please.

Because look, maybe there are some among us who travel to this marvelous spot in the middle of the East River to contemplate the Wagner Act. I kind of think that what most people want to do is take pictures of themselves and their friends in a unique place in the city:

Four Freedoms Park, Roosevelt Island, June 8, 2013

That said, there is a great view of U-Thant Island. So there’s that:

U-Thant Island From Four Freedoms Park, Roosevelt Island, June 8, 2013

Speaking of which, look at what the pre-Kahn, untrammeled site was — it’s perfect:

Southern Tip of Roosevelt Island From Water Taxi, East River, September 7, 2008

The other asinine thing — fucking ridiculous thing, really — is that the memorial is only open 9 am to 7 pm and closed all of Tuesday. Which is to say, if you would like to see the sun set from this wonderful perch in the middle of the East River, you can only do so between August 11 and May 7.

Why closed Tuesday you ask? Why no early morning communing with an oversized mug of FDR? Simply put, it’s because you can’t be there unsupervised. And why can’t you be at the site unsupervised? If I’m to understand one of the park rangers/volunteers, it’s because everything about it isn’t designed for actual park users. When we went there (June 2013), the water’s edge at the tip of the island was roped off so people wouldn’t fall in. Also the rules state that you’re only allowed to bring in water because — get this — the granite isn’t sealed. That’s right — no coffee drinks, no iced tea, no soda pop — because it might stain the granite. Who fucking creates a park like this?

The other thing — and fine, whatever, maybe this is more “subjective” — is that the thing is so bizarre and angular that it looks almost unreal. The site used to look like this:

Roosevelt Island, Upper East Side From Avalon Riverview, 2-01 50th Avenue, Hunters Point, Long Island City, Queens, July 4, 2005

Now the tip of the island has been sheathed in granite and either pumped up or shaved down to something unnatural looking:

Four Freedoms Park From Gantry Plaza State Park, Hunters Point, Long Island City, Queens, February 24, 2013

It looks to me like if Roosevelt Island got a Brazilian wax — just, I don’t know, unnatural. Or an origami condom or something. Land masses — the best land masses — at least look like they’re real. This looks wrong. And it just doesn’t feel right.

Four Freedoms Park, Roosevelt Island, June 8, 2013

The whole thing is horrible. We don’t need a memorial to FDR. We need open space. I can’t wait for the money to run out and let that site revert back to the people. What will probably happen is the fate of its neighbor, the smallpox hospital:

South Point Park, Roosevelt Island, June 8, 2013

The smallpox hospital is landmarked but it’s too expensive to fix, so it has a “keep out” sign, and we can just appreciate it from afar. That whole concept isn’t far off from the original goal of the FDR memorial, at least if you read between the lines; it’s a place for a memorial, but not for you to interact with. This is bullshit. Go forth, spill coffee, enjoy the summer sunset. That’s what a park is all about.