It was the peculiar fate of Louis I. Kahn to be the most monumental of modern architects and yet never to build a monument. The qualities that reverberate in his mature work – weight, permanence, hierarchy, and tragic dignity (as it has been aptly called) – are nothing if not monumental. But each of his exclusively memorial projects, those which had no other function than to commemorate, came to grief. This was an impressive roster and included designs for such eclectic subjects as Franklin D. Roosevelt and Vladimir Lenin, the Louisiana Purchase and the Six Million Jewish Martyrs.

This situation will change if the Roosevelt Memorial for New York (1973–74) is built.1 It is Kahn's last monument, and the ripest, a grand summation of half a century of thought about commemoration and remembrance. It also marks his final reconciliation with the classical heritage in which he had been steeped as a student and against which he warred for most of his professional life.

A Monumental Fountain, circa 1924. University of Pennsylvania, School of Fine Arts, Architecture (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, circa 1928): 32. Collection of Susan Glassman.
The classical heritage loomed over the University of Pennsylvania, where Kahn studied from 1920 to 1924. There he was taught the Beaux-Arts system: Roman antiquity as codified in Paris and carried to Philadelphia in the mind of Paul Cret, the French prodigy who presided over the program. Cret's pupils learned the classical orders by rote and with conviction – perhaps the last architects anywhere to do so. The making of a monument posed no special problem: the same classical frontispiece that adorned a museum or a library might be detached to serve as a monument in its own right. By 1924, Kahn had mastered the system well enough for his monumental fountain to be included in a university catalogue.2 This senior esquisse (a sketch design made under a strict time limit) showed that Kahn could produce a convincing classical monument off the top of his head, without reference books or models.

Kahn recoiled violently against Beaux-Arts classicism after 1929. Having been rendered jobless by the Depression, he assembled an architectural think-tank called the Architectural Research Group, which devoted itself to that central subject of European modernism, the mass-produced social housing project. But its most provocative design was a monument, meant to commemorate Vladimir Lenin and to be built in Leningrad. Kahn later eliminated all evidence of the project, presumably during the early years of the Cold War, and it is known only from a newspaper account. According to that report,

Kahn and the Architectural Research Group contributed a design to an international competition for a Lenin memorial, which, if accepted and constructed, will make the port of Leningrad the most striking in the world. Through the portals of two towers of red glass rising several hundred feet from the surface of the water the visitor would descend into an enormous circular plaza from which marine spectacles could be viewed [...] [T]here would be 50,000 square feet of glass brick alone in the two towers.3

The design was a curious hybrid. The idea of glistening transparent towers was a mainstay of German modernism and recalled the crystalline skyscrapers that Ludwig Mies van der Rohe had proposed a decade earlier. But even as he moved away from the forms of Beaux-Arts classicism, Kahn could not shake its mental habits or its method of planning. The axiality and formal hierarchy of his Lenin memorial was thoroughly unmodern, as was the basic motif, that of a triumphal arch. Here began Kahn's lifelong struggle to make modern monuments without sacrificing the qualities of ceremony and decorum that distinguish the great examples of the past.

From "Monumentality," in Paul Zucker, ed., New Architecture and City Planning (New York: Philosophical Library, 1944): 588.
Kahn came to recognize that modernism, for all its achievements, had yet not created shapes and forms of monumental character. Modern technology must be enlisted in this effort, or so he proposed in an article of 1944 simply titled «Monumentality.»4 He argued that steel construction might be used expressively to convey «spiritual quality,» much as Gothic cathedrals achieved transcendent effects by pushing masonry construction to its physical limits; «Beauvais Cathedral needed the steel we have,» he famously proclaimed.5 But Kahn had no designs that fulfilled such a heady demand. The tentative proposal he did show – a monumental civic center – was more a hypothesis than a solution: Beauvais Cathedral as seen by Calder.

Aerial perspective, unbuilt proposal for the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, 1947. Louis I. Kahn Collection, University of Pennsylvania and the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.
Strangely, Kahn did not heed his own advice. When he made a design for the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial three years later, he proposed a sprawling landscape of buildings and plazas to either side of the Mississippi River, lacking any monumental focus. It must have been vexing that Eero Saarinen won the competition with a project that could have come directly from Kahn's own article: the Gateway Arch, a bold parabolic structure that is nearly Gothic in its indivisible union of expression and structure.

Thwarted in his search to achieve monumentality by modern means, Kahn turned once more to the past. During his 1951 fellowship at the American Academy in Rome, he again confronted the classical antiquity that had been the core of his education. This time he sought out those ancient buildings without classical orders: the mournful hulks of Roman baths and insulae, stripped of their marble cladding and ornament, mute buildings that achieved monumentality through scale and space alone. Further excursions took him to Greece and Egypt. After this his own work grew more solid and substantial – and more archaic – as he restored to architecture those two basic elements that modernism had virtually abolished, the discrete room and the solid wall.

Unbuilt proposal for Roosevelt Memorial, Washington, D.C., 1960. Louis I. Kahn Collection, University of Pennsylvania and the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.
But in his monuments, Kahn still resisted classical convention. In particular he rejected the inert and static mass of masonry, which seemed to him earthbound and finite; instead he aspired to intangibility, for which he enlisted appropriately intangible means: water and light. For the Roosevelt Memorial in Washington (1960), he envisioned an extended arc of sixty basins, each shooting a jet of water, collectively forming a diaphanous wall. For his Memorial for the Six Million Jewish Martyrs (1966–72), he proposed piers of solid cast glass. In one case, water suggested a wall; in the other light dematerialized a solid pier.

Such was the unpromising background to Kahn's Roosevelt Memorial in New York. Kahn signed a contract with the New York State Urban Development Corporation (UDC) on January 1, 1973, and immediately went to work. Within a few weeks he settled the basic scheme: a garden and a room, as he succinctly put it.6 Two closely planted rows of trees would define the edges of the garden, converging toward an architectural enclosure at the southernmost tip of the island. Although the specific form of the architectural element would change radically during the year, the wedge-shaped grove did not. (This element was the contribution of Harriet Pattison, who provided the landscaping for many projects during these years.)

Kahn's first idea was to place a cylinder within a cube, making a double-shelled chamber like those he had explored at the Salk Institute and in his dormitory for Bryn Mawr College. It was entirely architectural in conception and set in the landscape as a kind of temple of contemplation, open to the sky. The sculptural effect would have been dramatic, an enigmatic cube at the prow of Roosevelt Island. Unsure whether the design would be stronger in concrete or stainless steel, Kahn made alternatives for both. On April 26, 1973, he presented his ideas in the form of a model.

Evidently startled by the monument's lavish scale, the UDC mandated cost-cutting revisions, including the flattening of the cube into a single-storied box. Recognizing that this ruined the sense of deep enclosure, he reworked the inner cylinder, making its upper edge curve inward to form a kind of vaulted canopy. The geometric possibilities of the vault tantalized Kahn and he filled sheet after sheet with sectional drawings, clearly inspired by his recent Kimbell Art Museum.7

Room plan, sections, and elevations, Roosevelt Memorial. Graphite and lead on yellow trace, circa May 1973. Louis I. Kahn Collection, University of Pennsylvania and the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.
Kahn soon relinquished the cylinder motif, perhaps because the inward looking ring was unresponsive to the potential of the site. Instead he pushed out the southern wall of the box, thereby converting the enclosed temple into a viewing platform. The canopy remained in vestigial form: two slabs of roof covered the sides while the central aisle was left uncovered to bathe the sculpture of Roosevelt below with light. Here Kahn reprised the theme of the hypaethral temple of antiquity, open to the sky, with the cult statue of the temple god within. Even the walls were clad in an appropriately Roman material: travertine.

The UDC seems to have found the heavy roof oppressive and at the meeting of July 11, they requested another model,8 to be ready in time for the dedication of the island on September 24, 1973, when it would be officially named Roosevelt Island. Kahn discarded the roof but clung to the temple theme, and arranged four columns, two on either side of the central space, making a kind of classical cella. These columns would represent Roosevelt's Four Freedoms and serve as a fitting culmination to the monument s grand axis, turning the processional path from one of the trees to one of columns at its climax.9 It was a thrilling modern interpretation of the idea of the temple, but even this pared down version was too lavish, and Kahn was once more sent back to work.

Section detail showing spaces below grade, Roosevelt Memorial. Charcoal on yellow trace. Louis I. Kahn Collection, University of Pennsylvania and the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.
The stately columns fell in one last bout of cost reductions, as did the subterranean rooms that had cluttered the north end of the site from the beginning. By December 11, 1973, Kahn's design assumed definitive form. It now began at the north with an austere flight of stairs that sounded the ceremonial note. After ascending these the visitor could take in the sweep of the axis, and then descend gently and gradually to the sanctuary at the south. All the elements were now resolved: the mighty axis, the poetic relationship to the landscape, and the sense of timelessness. Here at last was a monument that was undeniably modern and yet stood comparison with those of the ancient world. It was the only monumental design in Kahn's career in which his abilities can be said to be fully engaged. Perhaps this is why it is the only one of Kahn's monuments that does not look dated, even thirty years later.

1. David B. Brownlee and David D. De Long, eds., Louis I. Kahn: In the Realm of Architecture (New York; Rizzoli International Publications, 1991): 138–139.
2. Michael J. Lewis, «Kahn's Graphic Modernism,» in Drawn from the Source: The Travel Drawings of Louis I. Kahn, catalogue of an exhibition at the Williams College Museum of Art, Lewis and Eugene J. Johnson, eds. (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1996): 3.
3. Robert Reiss, «Air Castles Rise in 'Clinic',» Philadelphia Record, section 2, (May 14, 1934): 1. Esther Kahn confirmed that Kahn was the principal designer of the Lenin Memorial. Esther Kahn, interview with author, September 29, 1995.
4. Louis I. Kahn, «Monumentality,» in Paul Zucker, ed., New Architecture and City Planning (New York: Philosophical Library, 1944): 577–588.
5. Ibid. 581.
6. Brownlee and DeLong, 139.
7. Drawings 885.47, 885.48 and 885.49, Architectural Archives of the University of Pennsylvania.
8. For the April meeting, Kahn made an unusually lovely and very large pastel drawing. Drawing 885.36, Architectural Archives of the University of Pennsylvania.
9. Illustrated in Brownlee and De Long, 138.