Ever since my first encounter with a building by Louis Kahn, the library at Exeter Academy, I have always admired Kahn's work. At that time (I was a high school student in summer school), I didn't know much about architecture nor about Kahn. Nevertheless, the library's elemental forms, soaring space, beautiful light, and strong materiality made a powerful impression on me.
While I don't make pilgrimages to see Kahn's buildings, I try to see as many of them as I can. This summer when I was in New York City for vacation, I visited the "new" Kahn project, Four Freedoms Park, on Roosevelt Island. Kahn designed the project around 40 years ago, but the construction did not begin until March 2010.
The 4-acre park is located at the southern tip of Roosevelt Island. The easiest way to get to the park from Manhattan is to take the Roosevelt Island Tram on Second Avenue and 60th Street. From the tram station on Roosevelt to the park is a just a short walk with great view of the Manhattan skyline.
The first things one sees at the park are five large tress followed by a monumental stairway.
The stairs are tall enough to block some of views ahead but the presence of the linden tress above invite one to climb up to discover what's behind.
The allée leads to a large granite niche with an oversized bronze head of Roosevelt and s simple inscription:1882 -1945.
From the two sides, one enters a three-sided room open to the sky. The south side of the room is completely open to the expanse of the water. The square room is about 60 feet on each side and the walls are 12 feet high and made of solid granite blocks, each weighing around 36 tons.
The granite blocks are each separated by an one-inch gap. The wall on the back side, behind the Roosevelt sculpture is an excerpt from his "Four Freedoms" speech in 1941.
The square room is really a contemplative space that is both open and protected, with views of the river and the cityscape.
I am amazed that the park was completed forty years after it was designed. Kahn essentially went back to the basics of architecture with the triangular garden and the square room. The design is also full of complexity and subtlety in terms of the orchestration of the progress of spaces and the detailing. With the abstract and powerful design, Kahn was able to achieve a much admired timelessness to the architecture.