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G2: Arts: Dead man building: Four decades after his death, has the great architect Louis Kahn given the world his finest work yet? And was it all inspired by a masonic symbol on the back of a one-dollar bill? Oliver Wainwright joins the sunbathers at New York's Four Freedoms Park

July 3, 2014

Oliver Wainwright



This symbol on the dollar bill, added by Roosevelt, may have inspired the triangular shape of the president's memorial park

When the American architect Louis Kahn collapsed from a heart attack in the toilets of New York'sPenn Station in 1974, he left behind a lot of loose ends. There were three children, by three different women, who lived within a few miles of each other but would only meet after his death. There was his dwindling practice, which he left $500,000 in debt. And, tucked away in his sketchbooks, was a complete set of drawings for an unrealised project - one that would lie dormant in his archive for almost 40 years.

Some of these drawings will be on display in Britain for the first time next week, in a captivating retrospective of the architect's work at the Design Museum in London. The show unpicks the career of this late-flowering master, who only completed his first building in his 50s, but whose projects have proved to be some of the most influential of the 20th century. From the sun-baked Salk Institute for Biological Studies in California, where a plaza open to the Pacific is framed by rows of study rooms, to the cosmic courtyards of the Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad, his buildings have the power of ancient ruins, their massive, monolithic forms possessing a timeless, otherworldly air.

Some of these sketches, scribbled in pencil and charcoal with a scruffy energy, depict a box, from which extends a long, tapering, indistinct landscape. Others feature a strangely geometric comet leaving a misty trail of trees in its wake. Others still show a truncated triangle capped with what could be an all-seeing eye, much like the sinister Great Seal on the back of one-dollar bills.

It was US president (and freemason) Franklin Delano Roosevelt who introduced this masonic symbol - which was on the reverse of the official eagle seal of the United States - to the banknote in 1935. Although we don't know for certain if this was in Kahn's mind, it provides an appropriate connection, since these drawings are Kahn's designs for a Roosevelt memorial park. Four decades after it was first commissioned, the triangular park, one of Kahn's last works, has been made a reality.

Unlike the axial avenues, the classical tempiettos and the manicured lawns favoured in Washington DC, New York's presidential memorials have tended to take the form of vast pieces of transport infrastructure. John F Kennedy got an airport, George Washington a bridge, Abraham Lincoln a tunnel. But the FDR Four Freedoms Park bucks the trend. The four-acre site extends like a stony arrowhead from the southern tip of Roosevelt Island, parting the fast-moving currents of the East river. Standing on its tip feels like being at the prow of a ship: seals bask on the rocks in front, while the waters to the west are framed by the cliff face of Manhattan, and to the east by the jumble of Queens.

Tall granite blocks line the edge of this open-topped deck, which is reached via a narrowing lawn that slopes gently downwards , bordered by lime trees. It is a composition of elemental simplicity but with immense spatial power: it's a bit like being all alone in a room at the very end of the earth, with the entire world focused behind you to a single point. "I had this thought that a memorial should be a room and a garden, that's all I had," said Kahn in 1973. "The garden is somehow a personal kind of control of nature. And the room was the beginning of architecture."

From this basic pairing, Kahn developed a finely nuanced landscape that draws its impact from strong shifts in perspective and an almost stage-set theatricality. You enter from the north, past the crumbling gothic ruins of an old smallpox hospital, to be greeted by an imposing set of steps. Nothing of the park is revealed until you walk up them. Then the lawn and trees appear to shoot off into the distance, squeezed towards a bronze head of FDR at the end of the island, contained within a spacious granite box. Inscribed on the back of this is Roosevelt's famous speech, in which he set out the four freedoms everyone in the world should enjoy: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want and freedom from fear. Delivered in 1941, its purpose was to persuade Americans to enter the second world war.

The park has the feel of an ancient temple precinct, but with the unusual sensation that the land is falling away from you as you head towards the sacred shrine, rather than rising towards a hallowed mount. Look back - across an oasis of sunbathing bodies and dreaming couples on a hot summer's day - and the perspective has the opposite effect. The view is dramatically compressed: the triangular lawn now seems square, while the hospital ruins provide an eerie backdrop, poking up behind a line of copper beech trees.

As the climax of this composition, the granite room is intended to be a place of contemplation, reminiscent of the Pacific-facing plaza of the Salk Institute. Furnished with two simple benches and open to the waters at the southern tip, it is what Kahn called "a space of inspired use", represented in his sketches by a man playing the violin. The 12ft-high pillars that line each side, weighing 36 tonnes apiece, sit an inch apart, their polished sides amplifying the views they thinly frame. Put your ear to the gap and, seashell like, you can hear the roar of the river.

"Consider the momentous event in architecture when the wall parted and the column became," Kahn would say mystically to his students, when he wasn't telling them to talk to bricks. Half wall, half colonnade, this monolithic enclosure can be seen, in Kahn's eyes anyway, as the beginnings of architecture itself. Surprisingly, though, this most monumental of architects never managed to realise a monument in his own lifetime. Although he penned memorials for such diverse subjects as Lenin, the Louisiana Purchase and the Six Million Jewish Martyrs, none came to fruition. Abandoned in the 1970s, when city funds were not forthcoming, the Four Freedoms Park plan was revived during a wave of Kahn appreciation, spurred on by My Architect, the biopic made by his son Nathaniel in 2003.

Much of the credit for its creation should go to Gina Pollara, the architect who co-curated an exhibition of Kahn's drawings in 2005 and became the project director, and to William vanden Heuvel, a former US diplomat who helped raise $53m. "There's sometimes a discrepancy over posthumous projects," says Pollara, standing at the edge of the granite deck where, sadly, a clumsy guard rail has had to be installed. "But this is completely Kahn's project - he had worked out every detail, down to 1/32 of an inch."

While the park project only occupies a small part of the Design Museum's show, it is a work of enormous personal significance for Kahn. Before he landed his first commission, for the Yale University Art Gallery at the age of 50, he had spent the early part of his career working on social housing, designing more than 2,500 apartments and houses as part of Roosevelt's New Deal. As the son of Estonian immigrants who had escaped profound poverty, Kahn was hugely impressed by Roosevelt and the New Deal, seeing himself as one of its beneficiaries.

As river swirls past, Pollara walks back through the granite room to the garden. "This place stands as a memorial not only to FDR and the New Deal," she says, "but to Kahn himself."

Captions:

Immense

spatial power . . . clockwise from main, the $53mFour Freedoms Park at the tip

of New York'sRoosevelt Island; Louis Kahn at work in the 60s; his National Assembly of Bangladesh building in Dhaka


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Source: Guardian (UK)


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