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Louis Kahn’s Minimalist FDR Memorial Opens
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A massive 1,050 lb bronze bust of FDR marks the entrance
A massive 1,050 lb bronze bust of FDR marks the entrance to “the room,” the secluded yet open space that is the signature of the memorial. Courtesy of Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park, © Paul Warchol

A new tribute to Franklin Delano Roosevelt is complete after nearly 40 years on the drawing board, one of the final works of famed architect Louis Kahn.

November 13, 2012—Even people who have spent decades of their lives bringing to fruition the new memorial to Franklin Delano Roosevelt on the southern tip of the East River island that bears his name are stunned by the experience of the finished product. The minimalist design—one of the last by famed architect Louis Kahn—evokes a complex and nuanced response for those who saw it in advance of the October 24 public opening.

“As with all great works of art, there are things that reveal themselves to you and ... you will continue to discover things,” says Gina Pollara, the executive director of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park. Pollara became aware of Kahn’s design in 1994 and has been involved in efforts to realize those plans for the past eight years. “It’s a very subtle work. It’s an extremely subtle play of space and the passage through space. It’s very difficult to understand through the drawings.”

The park is a monument to FDR, celebrating his 1941 State of the Union address, delivered as World War II was raging through Europe and the Axis Powers were relentlessly advancing. Roosevelt offered the four freedoms—freedom of speech and expression, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear—as the antithesis of tyranny.

Rows of trees leading to the space that Louis Kahn referred to as 'the room'

Rows of trees lead to the space that Louis Kahn referred to as “the
room.” Courtesy of Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park,
© Paul Warchol

Those freedoms and a massive 1,050 lb bronze bust of FDR are the centerpiece of the memorial, occupying a unique space Kahn referred to as “the room.” The room is an impressive 60 ft by 60 ft space at the tip of Roosevelt Island, constructed with 6 ft wide by 6 ft deep by 12 ft high granite blocks, quarried in North Carolina and sawn into the dimensions Kahn envisioned.

Barging those massive blocks, some weighing as much as 36 tons, over the swift and powerful tidal currents of the East River to the isolated site was actually less of a challenge than developing the memorial in the first place. Kahn had finished the design but not the construction documents when he died in 1974 in New York’s Pennsylvania Station. A colleague, John Haaf, completed the drawings and Mitchell/Giurgola served as the architect of record, Pollara says. The final drawings were completed in 1975, as New York City—slated to contribute roughly $2 million of the project’s $6-million budget—slipped into a deep financial crisis. 

Rendering of memorial being displayed on a man-made island located within the bustle of New York City

The memorial is paradoxically located within the bustle of New
York City yet quietly secluded on a man-made island at the edge of
the East River. Courtesy of Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms
Park, © Paul Warchol

William Jacobus vanden Heuvel, who has a long resume of public service and was the United States’s deputy ambassador to the United Nations from 1979 to 1981, worked to get the project funded for decades and fought off competing development proposals for the site, including a hotel and several residential complexes. Filmmaker Nathaniel Kahn’s Academy Award-nominated 2003 documentary My Architect about his father provided the renewed interest to fully fund the project, which was not well known prior to then.

“I was very surprised that it wasn’t well known at all,” Pollara says. “I think people have considered it a minor work. It’s really been very below the radar. It’s not anything that was included in major books on Kahn. Even as we built, we weren’t even on the radar.”

Pollara says there was resistance to moving forward with the memorial after Kahn’s death because he was known to be thoroughly involved in the construction of his designs, even to the point of changing his mind and having walls torn down. How could this be Kahn’s work if he was not on-site to provide that level of insight and guidance?

Rendering of Kahn's 'room' which is formed of massive granite blocks

Kahn’s “room” is formed of massive granite blocks, spaced with
precise, 1 in. gaps, creating a quiet oasis in the heart of the city.
Courtesy of Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park,
© Paul Warchol

“I think people felt that ... we would not, more importantly, be able to achieve the kind of precision that Kahn himself would have demanded,” Pollara says.

Those fears turned out to be unfounded. Pollara, vanden Heuvel, and others working to develop the project took great pains to demand perfection. The quarry in North Carolina was required to saw-cut the granite and leave the sharp edge Kahn specified. The huge blocks were placed with exacting 1 in. gaps between them.

“Anytime a new person joined the team, I would say to them, ‘This is not a regular construction project. This is unlike any [other] project you will ever work on in your entire life. I demand and it demands your complete attention and your active involvement in solving issues and holding everybody—including yourself—to the highest standards possible,’ ” says Pollara, who has a degree in architecture from Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art.

“That was a difficult thing to overcome. Even if you can’t see it, I want it to be perfect,” Pollara says. “That was very difficult for a lot of people to accept. People don’t build that way today. If I say it’s a 16th of an inch off, it’s a 16th of an inch off. And I don’t care if it’s something you are not going to see when it is built.”  

Working from plans more than 37 years old proved an interesting challenge. The techniques to saw and move enormous granite blocks haven’t changed much in the ensuing decades. In fact some of the techniques likely haven’t changed since the pyramids were constructed. Computer modeling, however, has added greatly to the understanding of the forces the site will experience via sea level rise, storm surge, and possible hurricanes.

Langan, an engineering and environmental services firm headquartered in Elmwood Park, New Jersey, was hired to provide civil and geotechnical engineering, and landscape architecture/hardscape technical support services. Langan began work nearly 20 years ago, when just a fraction of the eventual $53-million budget had been raised.

Rendering of riprap, being displayed on the banks along side the remote, narrow site

About 95 percent of the riprap on the banks was quarried on-site,
saving the expense and logistics management of bringing the
material to the remote, narrow site. Courtesy of Franklin D.
Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park, © Paul Warchol

“The site consists entirely of land created in recent decades by filling of tidal waters, using surplus shot-rock from major on-island construction projects of a subway station and an inter-borough water tunnel,” said Gerard McDonnell, P.E., a senior project manager for Langan, in written comments to Civil Engineering online. “Therefore concerns existed as to the compressible nature of the deep underlying organic layers, and to a lesser extent the potential looseness of the shot-rock fill. The challenges arising were the control of differential settlement, as even the smallest amounts would not be aesthetically acceptable.

“As long ago as 1993 Langan designed and supervised an earthwork program which, sponsored at that time by the Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation, shaped and surcharged the site. Left in-place for 16 years, the surcharge compressed the underlying organic layers and thereby eliminated settlement potential for almost all of the Park finishes and furnishings,” said McDonnell.  

Langan designed the broad riprap shorelines envisioned by Kahn and the site’s seawalls with the strength to withstand hurricane-force storms and seismic events, but with precise aesthetically finished slopes. A major cost-control success was that some 95 percent of the riprap was actually generated from quarrying operations within the on-site shot-rock fills, McDonnell said.

Weidlinger Associates, in New York City, was hired as the structural engineer, which included developing the foundations for the monument in the marine environment.

“We wanted to be very true to the vision and design a piece of art that would be around for a long time,” says Tod Rittenhouse, P.E., a managing director of Weidlinger. “That was the hardest thing, to make sure that as we designed this and as it was constructed that when we come back 20, 50, 100 years from now, the room, the art, the experience remains unchanged.”

Rittenhouse says that what makes the memorial’s foundation requirements unique are the large number of granite blocks spaced with precise gaps. Unlike a lone statue or sculpture installation, even 1/16th an inch of movement will be obvious here.

“The real issue is trying to create this art,” Rittenhouse says. “It’s not a building. When you are designing a museum or something large that is a statement piece of art in that regard, there are places to hide things. You can hide the drift. You can hide imperfections. Here, it is naked structure, viewed by the eye, that didn’t want to show any impurities or changes caused over time. Over 100 years of storm surge, what’s going to happen? We want it to be the same as it is the day it opened.”

East River view rendering of the massive granite blocks on the site

To barge the massive granite blocks to the site, the team
monitored the powerful tidal currents of the East River to schedule
deliveries. Courtesy of Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park,
© Paul Warchol

“And so that was the biggest challenge,” Rittenhouse says. “I don’t think people appreciate enough how delicate this massive structure actually is. I mean delicate in the lines. We have these 6 ft by 6 ft by 12 ft solid pieces of granite ... placed just so. Each stone has a 1 in. gap and nothing between. As you get close and look out, you can see through the six feet to the clearance on the other side. It’s very elegant. I’m an engineer. I don’t use the term elegant that often. But it is a very elegant design. And [we] want that design to be maintained long term.”

The foundation Weidlinger developed is a combination of 11 in. diameter vertical and battered caissons anchored to bedrock. Grade beams connect the caissons and are topped by longitudinal granite blocks. The exposed nature of the site prompted Weidlinger to use marine concrete criteria. Air entrainment was increased to minimize freeze/thaw concerns. Corrosion inhibitors were added and epoxied rebar was specified. A coffer dam was built around the site and water was pumped out during foundation work.  

The site, in the heart of New York City, is paradoxically quite remote. And that dual nature presented challenges during construction.

“On one hand it is right in the middle of New York City, on the other hand, it’s the tip of the universe because you are sitting there at the edge of an island with the East River at your doorstep,” Rittenhouse says.

Coordinating the concrete placements created tense moments. The trucks had to navigate New York City traffic and traverse a lift bridge within a 90-minute window to make it to the site on time. The team coordinated deliveries to avoid scheduled bridge lifts, but dense traffic meant that some trucks arrived beyond the concrete’s usable window and had to be refused.

The massive granite blocks were brought in, one per truck, and delivered to a port in New Jersey, where they were loaded on barges. The powerful tidal currents of the East River required careful scheduling of the deliveries.

“We had to coordinate bringing the boat in and taking the boat out with the tide,” Pollara says. “They would float the barge in on the incoming tide, then offload the stones—it took the better part of 12 hours—and then float out on the outgoing tide. There were only a few days. If we missed those days, we had to wait until the next cycle to bring in the next shipment.”

Another remarkable aspect of the work, McDonnell said, was overcoming the narrowness of the site for construction traffic, especially given that each phase of the project was finished with high-end architecture.

“To address this repeated challenge, the construction manager, Sciame, (New York City) and main contractors (Civetta Cousins JV., Bronx, New York and Port Morris Tile & Marble Corporation, Bronx, New York) coordinated with the design team to plan crane pad locations and operational routes. To their credit, the results of that cooperation were excellent. All told, it is a special privilege to have seen this project through both the design and construction phases,” McDonnell said.

The finished memorial opened to the public on October 24. Before the official opening, Rittenhouse found himself alone in the room as the final landscape elements were being placed.

“Even working on it for the better part of a decade, I never envisioned what it would actually feel like,” Rittenhouse says. “You are in a room, which is open to the sky, but yet you are enclosed by the walls on two sides. I was there by myself. And that feeling of being there, and the joy of being part of it... I think it is one of the most rewarding projects I have ever done. I have done some very interesting projects in my career. But this is one I am most proud of because it is so simple, yet was so complicated, so peaceful, yet right in the middle of New York City. It is so simple. No one will appreciate the effort behind it.”

Pollara says she feels privileged to have helped bring Louis Kahn’s design to completion: “I have [even] more respect for him now than I did before I worked on this project. He had an extraordinary ability to actually see very clearly what the results were going to be. I know that Kahn saw every aspect of what he was doing.”  


 

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