Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Louis Kahn’s Last Masterpiece

On October 24, 2012 you’ll first be able to visit Louie Kahn’s last masterpiece: the four-acre Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park on the former named Welfare Island, in the East River, with the prospect of the Statue of Liberty in full view. It took a long time and lots of maneuvering to achieve it.

On the saddest St. Patrick’s Day in American history in 1974, the greatest 20th century Philadelphia architect died of a heart attack in the men’s restroom in New York’s Penn Station. Because he had crossed out his address on his passport, it took authorities three days to identify him. He was returning from Dhaka where he had just finished their National Assembly. But in his luggage were the drawings for the projected Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park.

Alas, he was deeply in debt. And New York City was facing a fiscal crisis. So it took 40 years to fulfill his promise—courtesy of the former U.S. ambassador, William J. vanden Heuvel, himself the son of a poor couple in Rochester (his mother ran a boarding house and father a factory worker). So his work helping raise the $53 millions for the park was a labor of love. They expect a conservancy to maintain the park which will become a state park.

It’s pure Kahn, his only building in New York City, construction supervised by the Philly firm, Mitchell/Giurgola. Kahn ruminated about architecture as the creation of “noble spaces”, in which he here reveled at the “endlessly changing qualities of natural light, in which a room is a different room every second of the day.” In this park’s “ room” there are inch-wide gaps between 36-ton North Carolina granite blocks in which only the sides of the stones inside the gaps are polished to create shiny, reflective slits that amplify narrow views through them. (Michael Kimmelman, New York Times, 9/13/2012.) There is a bust of the President by Jo Davidson on a free-standing wall.

There is as yet little mass transit to the island, but Cornell has already designed a plan for a local campus. The skeptical are already promoting for skateboarders a location that doesn’t cheapen the quasi-religious feeling they are promoting. Kahn has been a cultural hero of mine ever since I interviewed him in 1959 in my WFIL-TV “University of the Air” series on the “Man-made Landscapes”.

He was eager to explain his dream that his design of the library for the Salk Center for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California would force the scientists and humanists to communicate with each other. So eager in fact, that he stood up to show me more closely his maquette! He was disappearing into the non-televised space! 

Some years later when I finally visited the Salk, I stopped the first local with a white jacket to ask, “Did Kahn’s dream of science/humanities discourse prove true?” “Only until Jacob Bronowski died,” he sadly reported! Bronowski was that British mathematical genius equally in love with William Blake that the BBC bullied into hosting teleseries while he preferred teaching and writing!

You can imagine my thrill in 2006 to learn at the Golden Jubilee of Greenbelt Knoll when we learned that Louis Kahn had secretly designed the 19 homes, Philly's first experiment in racially integrated housing. You see, the unprepossessing Louie had an irresistible thing about ladies he couldn’t resist. He worked under the table to finance his multiple liaisons! He had conned me into relishing unbeknownst a Kahn dwelling for 50 years. More lives should have such sweet serendipities.

I was astonished to learn yesterday that he was born in Estonia as Itze-Leib Schmuilowsky. His father emigrated to Philly to avoid Russian military service. They anglicized their names in 1915 after they became American citizens in 1914. They now, indeed, had nothing to fear but fear itself. The formidable Ricky Wurman, Kahn’s protege, sweet talked the Philadelphia school system into an architectural curriculum. That great idea fizzled.

It’s time to retrieve that common ideal. Begin it with his son Nathaniel Kahn’s marvelous film "My Architect: A Son's Story" on his gifted, quirky father. Philly students deserve their heritage.

Another version of this essay appears in Broad Street Review.

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