Roosevelt memorial is also a tribute to the late Louis Kahn, enigmatic architect

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Kahn circa 1967. (University of Pennsylvania.)
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On March 17, 1974, police found the body of a small-statured man with white hair, dead apparently of a heart attack, in a men's bathroom in Penn Station.

In his briefcase were plans and sketches for buildings, including, according to some accounts, a memorial to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, planned for the southern tip of Roosevelt Island in the East River. There was a passport, too, but the address, according to an article in The New York Times a few days later, listed an office address in Philadelphia. Police called the number, and finding the offices closed for the weekend, sent a teletype to Philadelphia police notifying them of the death of a man named Louis Kahn, resident of an unknown address, probably in Philadelphia. They sent his body to the medical examiner's office, and let the matter rest.

It was two days before his wife, Esther, reached police and found out what had become of her husband.

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The death was a shock to American architecture. The critic Paul Goldberger, then a writer at the Times, wrote the front page story for his paper after the body was identified, calling him "in the opinion of most architectural scholars, America's foremost living architect."

Yesterday, more than 38 years after that Penn Station heart attack, luminaries including Gov. Andrew Cuomo and former president Bill Clinton, gathered at the site of the memorial, finally built, and praised Roosevelt and his Four Freedoms speech. Four Freedoms Park, situated on a jet of land in the East River opposite the United Nations, was built pretty much the way it was supposed to be according to those designs the police found in that attaché case.

And to a generation of architects, the final building of this memorial is as much a tribute to the enigmatic Kahn as it was to Roosevelt.

For all his influence over architecture, Kahn was a relatively unprolific builder, and there is not a tremendous fund of built work to memorialize the profound stamp he put on American architecture.

When Kahn died he was reportedly heavily in debt. He was an architect who frequently billed clients less than he spent on his buildings, eating the cost overruns himself; he was a famous change-up artist and perfectionist. Also because for many years he maintained three separate families, a fact that was known to the families themselves but not to the outside world.

These facts Goldberger revealed almost two decades after Kahn's death. Writing in The New Yorker, Goldberger revealed:

I wrote an obituary that said that Kahn was considered by most scholars to have been the nation's foremost living architect, that his sombre, poetic buildings of stone and concrete led a generation of younger architects away from glass boxes, and that he was survived by his wife, Esther, and a daughter, Sue Ann.

Several years later, I learned that there was more to Kahn's personal story. He had another daughter, Alexandra Tyng, who was twenty when her father died, and a son, Nathaniel, who was 11. Kahn, it turned out, had three families. Alexandra was the daughter of Kahn and Anne Tyng, an architect who had worked closely with him. Nathaniel's mother was Harriet Pattison, a landscape architect who followed Tyng in Kahn's extramarital affections. Kahn did not flaunt his habit of forming liaisons with colleagues and keeping the relationships going on parallel tracks with his marriage. In fact, he said so little about his private life that Vincent Scully, the architectural historian who wrote the first book on Kahn's work, in 1962, hadn't known that Kahn was married. "For a while, I didn't know he had even one family ... that was part of his mystery," Scully said.

The revelation prompted Michael Rubenstein, a student of Kahn between 1958 and 1960, to respond. Rubenstein recalls writing a letter to Goldberger that read in part, "He probably had a thousand bastard children, and I was one of them, because he taught us."

Rubenstein was also, in 1974, a member of Mitchell/Giurgola Architects, which took over the project in the wake of Kahn's death but remained faithful to Kahn's design; the project was halted during New York's fiscal implosion of the same decade.

But after a revival of interest in the original plans in 2010, advocates were able to raise $53 million to finally execute it. The memorial will open to the public next week after nearly four decades of planning. Rubenstein, who now runs his own firm, is an unpaid consultant on the current project.

"It's as close as humanly possible" to Kahn's original drawings, Rubenstein told me. Also: "This is probably the most important thing I've ever done."

The memorial is on the southernmost parcel of Roosevelt Island and includes a stairway, a stone plaza with a bust of Roosevelt and a triangle of grass flanked by rows of linden trees. A set of 36-ton stones were transported across the river and lifted by cranes into precise arrangements, separated by inches. The complex is meant to evoke Roosevelt's Four Freedoms speech, which encompassed speech and worship and rejected want and fear. But unlike painter Norman Rockwell's literal depictions of those ideals, the connection is subtly implied.

"It's an abstraction," said Rubenstein. "There was no emblematic way that it said "˜Four Freedoms.'"

The design has an austerity that is reminiscent of Kahn's Salk Institute for Biological Studies near San Diego, whose alabaster color scheme ties into the group's idealistic calling, articulated by an engraving on site that reads, "Hope lies in dreams, in imagination and in the courage of those who dare to make dreams into reality."

Four Freedoms Park is also, as the name implies, a place of nature and contemplation.

"It manages to put, in the middle of this crazy city we live in, a tremendous amount of serenity," said Rubenstein. "We felt like we were in a forest."

It contrasts with the elaborate Roosevelt Memorial in Washington, D.C., which depicts multiple personas, including workers lining up and an elderly Roosevelt wrapped in a cloak next to a dog. Four Freedoms has only one bronze bust of Roosevelt by Jo Davidson, completed in 1933.

The prospect of a 38-year-old design being built new in 2012, an era so sensitive to innovation in architecture, would be strange if it had been almost any architect but Kahn. Except for two things: Since his work was never ubiquitous, it doesn't look dated, the way certain modernist and midcentury designs might have begun to.

Like most architects, Kahn had developed a signature style. There was more masonry, and less glass, than in the constructions of International Style and other modernist architects of Kahn's time. He is said to have been influenced by the ruins of classical antiquity in Rome and Greece, and if so, that would make sense of these open "rooms," like roofless Parthenons, that make up the new memorial.

But he was also a rebel, if in small gestural ways, from the generation he grew up in architecturally. And so his work does not scream modernism so much as timelessness. Partly from lack of exposure, partly because it was always a style unto itself.

It's fresh and contemporary enough that it has invited comparison to Michael Arad's solemn work at the World Trade Center, and the mixture of flat surfaces and vegetation is an arrangement that Four Freedoms shares, despite being conceived decades earlier. Rubenstein uses the word "elemental" to describe both concepts.

"I think the 9/11 Memorial certainly learned something from this project," said Rubenstein. "Water is as basic as you can get."

Architectural worthiness is always at the mercy of financial backing, but the Four Freedoms Park attracted broad financial support, including funding from David Rockefeller and a trio of big landlords: Jerry Speyer, Sheldon Solow and Bruce Ratner.

There was one incident just hours before the dedication. Two of the biggest backers, the Alphawood Foundation of Chicago and the Reed Foundation, filed legal action to get their names inscribed closer to the center of the memorial and won concessions.

But after nearly four decades, the squabble will undoubtedly be forgotten, and the memorial will not.

"We learned to persevere," said Rubenstein.