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 (197374) 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 (196672), 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
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.
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): 138139.
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,
4. Louis I. Kahn, «Monumentality,» in Paul Zucker, ed., New Architecture and
City Planning (New York: Philosophical Library, 1944): 577588.
5. Ibid. 581.
6. Brownlee and DeLong, 139.
7. Drawings 885.47, 885.48 and 885.49, Architectural Archives of the University
8. For the April meeting, Kahn made an unusually lovely and very large pastel
drawing. Drawing 885.36, Architectural Archives of the University of
9. Illustrated in Brownlee and De Long, 138.