Coming to Light

Coming to Light

When the plan to build Louis I. Kahn’s memorial to Franklin D. Roosevelt on the south point of Roosevelt Island in New York City was reinvigorated in 2006, the idea was understandably met with a high degree of skepticism: “Roosevelt’s dead, who cares?” “An architect’s work should never be built posthumously.” “You’ll never be able to achieve what Kahn would have wanted.” “It’s an outdated relic from the 1970s.”

So it begs the question, why build it at all? First off, the project never lay dormant for long. The memorial was part of the plan to reinvent Welfare Island in the late 1960s, and was first publically presented when the island was renamed for Roosevelt in 1973. It stopped briefly after Kahn’s untimely death in March 1974, but was more decisively derailed by the city’s fiscal crisis in 1975. However, the effort to build it never really ceased; it just fell out of the public eye. Fortunately, Ambassador William vanden Heuvel, who had been part of the initial efforts in the 1970s, remained its champion throughout the succeeding decades tenaciously fighting off one alternate use after another to keep the site open for its promised purpose.

By the mid 2000s, funding to construct a park without the FDR Memorial created a “now-or-never” moment. The Reed Foundation initiated an exhibition on the Kahn project that brought it to the public’s attention and started a wider dialogue. It was as co-curator of that show, mounted in January 2005 at The Cooper Union, that I first became involved with Kahn’s design. Subsequently, I established the project office in 2006 with seed money from Alphawood Foundation Chicago and with no absolute certainty the project would be built. And yet, by all portents it seemed the stars were coming into alignment; perhaps the project had not been completed before simply because it wasn’t the right time.

The skepticism that greeted the renewal of the project was certainly justified. There were many practical decisions to be made such as how to address the rising sea level and how to design the foundations to account for the seismic code that did not exist in the 1970s were overwhelming. Most difficult was how to make all the required changes yet keep the Kahn design intact—all without Kahn’s input. Kahn was known to be intensely involved in the building process and frequently redesigned projects as they were being built. We couldn’t go to him for advice.

There were more elusive issues, questions that hit on the intangibles: Can a posthumous work be an authentic work of its author? What makes a Kahn, a Kahn? Several of his most famous works (Yale Center for British Art and the National Assembly Building in Bangladesh, among them) had been completed posthumously, so at least there was precedent. Ultimately, the majority of these concerns were overcome.

From the start, a mandate was set to build the memorial exactly as dictated by the 1975 set of construction documents, with whatever changes had to be made for current code compliance. It was clear from the drawings that construction would be challenging. Kahn had specified large solid granite blocks, some weighing up to 36 tons apiece, and the tolerances for fabrication and installation were exceedingly tight: the design was dimensioned to 1/32nd of an inch. The finish of the granite was to be “saw cut,” an unforgiving method of production which yields a matte surface engraved with the marks of the saw and allows little room for error.

There were logistical and delivery complexities as well. The site is situated on the tip of an island in the middle of a tidal strait that boasts some of the swiftest currents in North America and one of the shortest slack tides in the world. The 36-ton blocks had to be barged to the site and off-loaded using a floating crane brought in and out on a tight schedule driven by a very narrow window between changing tidal currents. On top of all this, Roosevelt Island is city-owned land that was leased to New York State, which makes even the most basic jurisdictional questions difficult to answer and complicates the regulatory, permitting, and approvals process.

Whenever there was a tough choice that had to be made, what drove the outcome was respect for Kahn’s intent as far as it could be divined through the archival record and his known methods and attitudes towards his architecture and its making. There were some who thought it a ridiculous expense to build with solid granite, arguing instead those elements could be constructed out of concrete with a granite veneer and achieve the same appearance. “No one will ever know the difference” was the rationale. But Kahn was never superficial. A material’s surface should express its substance and the story of its fabrication. What one cannot see does indeed matter. A wall made of plaster on lathe may not appear to the untrained eye to be markedly different from one of sheetrock over metal studs, but there is a difference, and a perceptible one at that. A plaster wall has a different aural quality, a different density, a different warmth.

Throughout the entire construction process, the fight to retain the integrity of Kahn’s design remained uppermost. Sometimes outrageous, yet well-meaning, suggestions were made. Kahn had specified that the 36-ton blocks that make up the walls of what he called the “Room” be polished on the two faces that oppose the open one-inch joint between them. One misguided architect maintained that it would be cheaper to fabricate and easier to install if those same elements were flame finished on all four sides, arguing that the homogeneity would ensure the contractors could not get it wrong. But Kahn was not about what was easy or cheap or expedient. And, though I wondered as to the purpose of that detail, it was not mine to change. It took completion of construction to supply the answer: the shimmer of light off the polished inner surface is what allows the visitor to see through the 6-foot deep dimension of the joint and, if that person’s view is aligned perfectly with the joint, produces the illusion that a solid 36-ton mass of granite is a thin plane of material. These nuances are what make Kahn’s work such genius. Needless to say, if the contrast of the saw-cut finish versus the polished surface had been changed, this little bit of magic would have been lost.

The kind of magic evoked by the phrase “coming to light” suggests a latent form that emerges slowly through some preordained process without much external human input or effort, like a photograph that appears by way of a chemical reaction. It was an apt title for the 2005 exhibition, and, in retrospect, an ironic one.

Kahn’s architecture is simultaneously immediate and timeless. It seems inevitable, as though it somehow appeared without effort and has always been there. Kahn famously said, “…what was, has always been, what is, has always been, and what will be, has always been…” The memorial now seems as though it has always been part of the landscape of the island and the city. This sense belies a grueling process of creation. There is something in the DNA of a Kahn work that makes it particularly challenging to execute. His insistence on perfection, his attention to the smallest detail, his demand for the highest quality work, and his exacting tolerances, were exhausting to replicate. And yet, all that was the source of his genius and the reason why nearly every single built work of his is a masterpiece. It is also likely the reason why so few works were actually completed and what was built took such a toll on Kahn’s life.

In the end, it was the sum total of every individual, hard-won, excruciating detail and decision that made the completed project as precise as Kahn would have demanded. Through the long and arduous process, I often thought of a line from Beckett’s play, Endgame: “Grain upon grain, one by one, and one day, suddenly, there’s a heap…”