Louis Kahn’s Last Commission

Rooms of Requirement

I recently visited the new (38 years in the making) Four Freedoms Memorial to Franklin Delano Roosevelt by Louis Kahn, on Roosevelt Island in Manhattan’s East River across from the United Nations. The name comes from a famous Roosevelt speech where he listed the four basic human freedoms worth fighting for: Freedom of Speech and Expression, of Worship, from Want, and from Fear. The memorial exemplifies the power of architecture to celebrate locations and

Roosevelt-Island-Tram2 from Eldridge Street.org

ideas. You get there by tram, which sets the experience apart, like an architectural palate cleanser, as you soar above the river and see the landscape below (photo courtesy Eldridgestreet.org). The memorial forms the tip of the

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island like the prow of a ship, which is fitting, since Roosevelt was a yachtsman and Assistant Secretary of the Navy before becoming president. This view is looking back toward the tramway, which is hidden on the far side of the bridge (photo by amiaga.com courtesy Business Insider). But it’s also a dazzling geometric abstraction made of huge precisely cut blocks of granite set extremely close together but not touching. The triangular wedge of lawn, linden trees, and gravel paths lead into a grand rectangular open-air room like an arrow piercing its target. After a brief walk from the tram station you come to a grand stairway which forms the ceremonial entrance to the park. At the top of the stair

Roosevelt Memorial photo from Vanity Fair

everything unfolds, drawing you inexorably across and down and into the view (photo courtesy Vanity Fair). It recalls the axiality of Kahn’s famous Salk Institute at La Jolla, where the plaza between the two main wings frames and magnifies the view to the sea. As The New York Times put it, when advocating for the memorial’s island site when it was first proposed: “It would face the sea he loved, the Atlantic he bridged, the Europe he helped to save, and the United Nations he inspired.” See the elegant UN slab on the right. But here the tree-lined paths (four rows — four freedoms?) at the side are as important as the central greensward: all roads lead to the man, the city, and the seascape. Visitors

Roosevelt bust by Jo Davidson

eddy around the bust of FDR by Jo Davidson (photo courtesy FDR Four Freedoms Park) and enter the roofless room at the island’s tip where they can sit at the water’s edge. The close-up and colossal granite blocks literally anchor

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the space (the famous speech excerpt is engraved on the central block),

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contrasting vividly with the long panoramas across the river. Everyone gathers on the stone steps at far end. In a sense the memorial leads us back to ourselves and our own contemplative horizons.

It’s a monumental room that’s also poignant and personal, and prompted other thoughts about the meaning of interior and exterior space. I think a well designed room should be a little like the Room of Requirement at Hogwarts, which, as Dobby explains to Harry Potter,  “is a room that a person can only enter when they have real need of it. Sometimes it is there and sometimes it is not, but when it appears it is always equipped for the seeker’s needs.” A domestic

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example might be Frank Ghery’s famous Norton house in Venice, California, where the architect gave his client, a former lifeguard, a lookout tower he could call home whenever he wanted to savor — if not save — some personal space (photo courtesy You-are-here.com). A somewhat broader interpretation of “requirement” might be a multi-functional space like a great room where some

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functions lie dormant until a particular activity is called for, as illustrated by Plan 65-142, above, which is essentially a contemporary one-room cottage. (Despite all the Medievalisms in the Harry Potter books, maybe there’s also a modernist streak!) In any case, whether in public environments or private spaces, I think the best architectural designs fill many roles.


 

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