New Video: FDR Four Freedoms Park

Photographer and video artist Barrett Doherty has created a beautiful 10-minute video that provides a vivid, experiential tour of the 4-acre Franklin Delano Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park in New York City. First conceived by architect Louis Kahn and his close collaborator, landscape architect Harriet Pattison, in the early 1970s, the park didn’t actually open until October last year, some 40 years later. This is Kahn’s first work in New York, and last work overall. In fact, he was carrying plans of the park when he died of a heart attack in Pennsylvania Station in New York City in 1974.

The design was completed after Kahn’s death by David P. Wisdom and Associates and Mitchell/Giurgola Associates. Located east of the UN complex at east 42nd street, the park is named after the “Four Freedoms” Roosevelt articulated in his 1941 state of the union.

In Landezine, Doherty tells us the memorial was first delayed by Kahn’s death and then derailed by the ill fiscal health of New York City during the 70s and 80s. It took William J. vanden Heuvel, a former U.N. ambassador and founder of the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute, to launch an effort in 2005 that built the momentum needed to finally realize Kahn and Pattison’s vision. Gathering more than $50 million in private and public funds, the project began to move forward, once some legal disputes among the corporation charged with creating the memorial and the foundations involved in its financing were resolved.

Kahn’s vision for the park was a simple one. Doherty quotes from one of his lectures at the Pratt Institute in 1973:

“…I had this thought that a memorial should be a room and a garden. That’s all I had. Why did I want a room and a garden? I just chose it to be the point of departure. The garden is somehow a personal nature, a personal kind of control of nature, a gathering of nature. And the room was the beginning of architecture.”

Doherty separates the design vision into five segments, two major elements and three supporting ones:

Major elements

  • The Room “a place of inspired use.”
  • The Garden, a place where “ the wildness of the American continent gives way to the order of the room.”

Supporting elements

  • The Grove, where one receives “the invitation to visit the memorial.”
  • The Sculpture and Forecourt, provides “a most personal welcome at the foot of the garden.”
  • The House in the Garden, a place for amenities that was unbuilt.

In Landezine, he provides a detailed explanation of site details that serve as a complement to the video.

Late last year, Michael Kimmelam, architecture critic for The New York Times, reviewed the site: “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.”


On Kahn’s approach to the park, he writes that this is “probably the closest Kahn came to pure abstract art, a virtual walk-in sculpture.”

Kahn used seemingly minor details to major effect: “In the park’s room he chose to leave inch-wide gaps between the 36-ton granite blocks, polishing only the sides of the stones inside the gaps to create shiny, reflective slits that amplify narrow views through them. It’s a stroke of genius. The blocks seem to flatten when you’re peering through the gaps, a perhaps accidental Alice-in-Wonderland effect that nonetheless derives from the heightened awareness a visitor feels, as one does at some of those land-art sites, of the endlessly shifting relationship between nature and artifice.”

While Mitchell/Guirgola and other construction and engineering firms tweaked the design — by adding lighting, adjusting the layout of the trees, and adding a bust of Roosevelt — the original design is really Kahn and Pattison’s: “Kahn prescribed the size, placement, polish and crisp cut of the enormous granite blocks and parapets (from a quarry in North Carolina), which, like the ancient Egyptian stones at Giza, lend to the site a military dignity and rhythm. He chose copper beech trees for the entrance. He devised the sloping paths that hug the water and meet the plaza at the foot of the lawn. In the important ways this is Kahn’s park.”

See more images

Image credits: (1) Louis I. Kahn Foundation, (2-5) Barrett Doherty

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