Paul Broches, FAIA, Partner
Mitchell/Giurgola Architects, LLP (PB)
Harriette Dorsen, Director
Project Management Services, Plaza Construction Corporation (HD)
Michael Gabbay, Executive Vice President
Plaza Construction Corporation (MG)
Steven Hillyer, Director
The Irwin S. Chanin School of Architcture Archive,
The Cooper Union (SH)
Gerry McDonnell, PE, Project Manager
Langan Engineering and Environmental Services, Inc. (GM)
Gina Pollara, Associate Director
The Irwin S. Chanin School of Architecture Archive,
The Cooper Union (GP)
SH Gerry, why don't you start, since Langan Engineering
was responsible for the most recent work done at the site.
GM We were retained by the Roosevelt Island Operating
Corporation (RIOC) in 1991 for various projects at Southpoint,
the thirteen-acre site at the southern tip of the island. The full scope
of the work included the demolition of the Old City Hospital and the
long-abandoned Delacorte Fountain, and the design, to a development
level, of the seawalls around the point and a park for the ten
acres north of the memorial. We hired a team of consultants, including
Mitchell/Giurgola Architects, to update the design documents
and address some accessibility issues to conform with the
Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). When all the work was executed,
we were fortunate to have a substantial sum of money left
something on the order of $250,000. Alyce Russo, the Director of
Planning and Development for RIOC, asked us to develop a scope
of earthwork for the site, which is, in fact, a landfill. Photographs
from the early 1950s show that the island ends very abruptly, within
twenty feet or so of the Smallpox Hospital. The rock simply drops
out of sight into the East River bed. However, with all the subway
work done since then, especially the very considerable excavation
for the deep subway station on the island, a tremendous amount of
shot-rock fill has been deposited at the south end of the island. At
the time of our work, the area was very overgrown and somewhat
dangerous because of this rocky fill. The site was actually closed to
the public. The fill had excellent drainage characteristics and excellent
handling characteristics, making it ideal for building. We developed
the earthwork for the site, which included the two walks or
«shoulders» on both sides of the memorial.
SH So the southern part of the island never had a seawall edge?
GM Correct. It was simply a landfill of shot rock that was
dumped there. It wasn't even leveled in any sense.
HD Do you know what the condition of the site was when
Kahn first looked at it in the early 1970s?
GM We have looked at aerial photographs of the site taken at
different times. It appears the filling continued into the 1970s,
up to about 1975.
SH Was Langan's involvement in the 1990s the construction of
the seawall around the southern tip?
GM No. Our role was to develop a set of drawings for that work
to serve as a scoping document to seek further state funding.
SH So the demolition of the Old City Hospital was funded and
the project ended after that?
GM Essentially, yes. The one construction project that was
released was the demolition of Old City Hospital and Delacorte
Fountain. Then we were fortunate enough to have the excess
money and with that, we tackled the earthwork. Alyce had the
foresight to say that if we were going to do the seawalls then
we should also prepare the land for the Memorial. It was a
very economical project to simply move the dirt around, to
shape it, and to compact it, so the entire three-plus-acre site is
ready to receive the hardscape and landscape finishes. We
also placed not just the earth shape, but we added an extra
three feet of grade. In building up the earthwork and it had to
be built up obviously because the memorial has a certain
relief you impose extra load on the riverbed below, which is
very organic and very vulnerable to compression and differential
settlement. With the extra load and the benefit of time, the
ground below is compressed: the potential settlements are
induced in advance. Also, the surface layers were mechanically
compacted at the time of placement to limit the need for redoing
the work. By now you could just fine-grade the landform as
it is and build the various finishes, such as the Room, the
Forecourt and the Steps, without undue concern. Essentially,
the site is fully prepared for the memorial.
SH Has there been any activity at the site since 1997?
GM Nothing material has happened since then, but the nearby
Strecker Memorial Laboratory was converted to an electric
substation in 1999, and Langan did a temporary stabilization of
the Smallpox Hospital in 1997.
HD Plaza Construction Corporation was contacted in January
2004 by the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute (FERI) to
advise them on what would be needed to bring this project to
reality after all these years. We thought that one way we could
be helpful would be to gather all of the documentation
together to see what work had been already done and what
would be needed to begin the construction process. We then
prepared a budget, took a look at some of the construction
issues, and did some exploration to find the specified materials.
We talked about the fact that the project was really ready
to go. That has been our role up to this stage.
PB To begin, we must look back to the New York State Urban
Development Corporation (UDC) in the early 1970s. Ted
Liebman, who was Chief of Architecture for the UDC at the
time, was largely responsible for the notion that Louis Kahn be
retained to design the memorial, and Ed Logue, President of
the UDC, fully embraced the idea. Kahn completed the design
before he died. After his death, projects were distributed
among the key architects in his firm. David Wisdom, who was
one of the associates, took charge of this project on behalf of
the office and kept John Haaf working on it. Haaf had worked
most closely with Lou on the original design. He was the one
who actually sat with him as the design developed.
SH We found notes to John from Lou on the sketches. They
were working on the drawings together.
PB Yes. Then the project came to Mitchell/Giurgola, again at Ted
Liebman's suggestion. Aldo Giurgola generously offered to take
over the Kahn/UDC contract with David Wisdom Architect to help
bring the project to fruition. Aldo wanted to get the job built as
Kahn intended, faithful to the original design. When the city fiscal
crisis erupted [in 1975], the memorial was essentially ready to go
to bid. The price tag back then was $3.5 to 4.5 million.
SH What's remarkable about this project is that it wasn't just a
series of sketches that fell by the wayside thirty years ago. It's
actually fully developed and ready to be built. No one has to
alter or interpret or adjust the design. It's essentially done.
PB The tragedy of not building this memorial is that there is
not enough of Kahn's work built. There should be more. It's
that simple. The impact this would have on one's entire perception
of the city would be phenomenal. After all, this is not
just a neighborhood design. It takes on a much larger scope.
That is what timeless architecture is about.
HD What's so exciting for us as builders is the simplicity of the
design. The techniques, the means and methods of construction
required to execute this very simple design, are really very,
very complex. It's a great challenge and a great opportunity to
bring these drawings into three dimensions.
MG One of the things about this project, and maybe Kahn saw
this and maybe he didn't, is that when the Egyptians built the
pyramids, they barged their stone to a point, and then they
used camels, elephants, and humans to actually get it from the
Nile to its location. In a small way, you have all the makings of
that here. The blocks of stone can be barged to the island in
key places and offloaded. There is an old bridge that will
accommodate certain materials to be brought onto the island,
but not for the size of the blocks we are looking at here. We
did check the bridge, and the bridge will handle a concrete
mixer. We'll have to keep it less than full, but we'll be able to
bring concrete to the island in a more conventional manner.
GM I believe the weight limitation on the bridge is 35 tons. A single
twelve-foot by six-foot by six-foot granite column weighs 36 tons.
SH Let's look at the drawings.
PB This is quite a significant beginning, walking by the
Smallpox Hospital, which for its time was probably considered
a fairly monumental building, then moving through the five copper
beeches. The selection of that particular tree was
deliberate in terms of its mass and volume and the color and
kind of tangle it makes as it matures. One is led to a place
where there is the choice of walking along the flat, outside
edge or climbing the stair to the top of the mound. A mound is
a natural form, but here the mound is created entirely by man's
hand. It's all worked stone, and the contrast between the
riprap and the large stones, carved and smooth, is no accident.
Once again, we're going back to the Egyptians in terms of
monumental form and part of that monumentality is its
unimaginable physicality. It's important to think of this as a
place one doesn't visit just once. It is a sanctuary to be experienced
in different ways at different times.
GM Even today, if you go out to Roosevelt Island and stand at
the rear of the earthwork form, your view of the city on both
sides is very constrained. It almost disappears, in fact. And
then, when you climb the mound, you get this tremendous
surprise when you reach the top, because suddenly you're
given a 360-degree panorama and it's very spectacular. You
have the Queensborough Bridge and Smallpox Hospital behind
you, the full Manhattan and Queens skylines on both sides,
and best of all, you have the river heading south and the
bridges in the distance.
SH At some point when I was looking at the drawings, I finally
had the realization that the highest point of the slope is also
the height of the room, that it's literally twelve feet over many
hundreds of feet.
GP So when you're standing at the top of the steps, you're
actually looking out over the top of the room. You have a completely
unobstructed view south.
SH And if you choose to walk down the lawn, the bust of FDR
is the focal point. It is something that is initially so small and obviously
becomes so overwhelming to your view as you move closer.
MG Which is also a function of the form of the island.
GP And a function of the design, a forced perspectival space.
SH Let's look at some of the details in the drawings with
respect to the complexity of constructing this.
HD How does one go about hoisting these huge pieces of
stone into place perfectly?
MG It's a combination of today's equipment and a very good
surveyor. There will be a group of skilled artisans, maybe no
more than thirty, forty at peak, working on this. Every piece of
stone will be marshaled from a barge to its final location. It will
be taken off the barge by a crew of about six people with the
help of a lifting device, called a high boy, and then set into its
final location with the help of a surveyor and these six individuals.
Every piece will be checked for plumb and levelness. We
will use gauges to set the blocks and check the joints. The
detailing is very intricate and it's going to have to be closely
GM The details of the room show that the stone columns are
spaced one inch apart. Kahn envisioned, if I'm correct,
that in certain conditions light would enter the room...
SH Through this spacing between the columns.
PB Yes, this would occur both in the early morning and in the
late afternoon. We once worked out when the sun would be
low enough and still normal to the slot for this to happen. It
was only one or two days a year that the sun would actually
penetrate through the slots to the interior of the room. It has
to be barely above the horizon. Even when the sun is fairly
high, the surfaces between the blocks would be lit, which
would be amazing. It's obviously not an accident that the
blocks are this close yet not touching (figs. 38 and 39). That tension
is part of the power of this room, in which one senses
both the independence and the interdependence of these elements.
I never think of them as columns. I always think of
them as a massive wall.
GP It's an incredible contrast between something that's so
massive and something that's so...
PB Ephemeral. There's a little book called Light Is the Theme
about the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth. In it Kahn
describes slots of light that go down the center of the vaults
and how this light passes through what are otherwise thought
to be solid, opaque objects. Kahn clearly was very focused on
how light passes through objects and enters a space and
enlivens that space.
SH Perhaps we could talk about the riprap edge and the tides.
GM In order to finish the edges of the memorial, some material
has to be excavated to taper the edges of the island to
make the triangular form of the Kahn design. This would create
more open water. The edges of the island will be finished with
riprap stone, and Kahn had a particular design for that. Today
the regulatory climate supports both the creation of open
water and riprap edges. The riprap creates an environment for
certain marine and estuarine species. In the specifications, this
riprap is described as stone quarried from the island.
GP The edges can't be soft edges because of the tidal action
and the incredible energy of the currents in the East River.
GM Correct. An erosion-limiting edge is essential for the
design, particularly since the East River is a body of water with
very powerful currents and is vulnerable to storms that come
up the bay. The island is very susceptible to erosive forces.
The choice of riprap by Kahn is elemental and it's consistent
with the rest of the design as well, the theme of using rock
rather than a vertical concrete seawall, for example. Riprap,
because of its broken nature, its rough surface, dissipates the
energy out of the waves and currents.
GP It was also the meeting of a very controlled, dressed stone
against a more natural rough-cut rock.
PB There was recognition on Kahn's part that this edge would
vary through the diurnal cycle. That is an important concept,
both in terms of time and space. The space changes as the
water moves in and out, and also in terms of the turbulence
that you're talking about. Water has the potential to erode the
shore, but it also enriches the dynamic experience of the
place. It's an amazing change taking place twice a day.
MG I'm surprised but happy to see that he didn't have steps
on the side because it is a very dangerous waterway. The
currents are very quick.
SH What are the biggest logistical hurdles, or challenges,
in terms of building this?
MG Material delivery and handling once the materials are on
the island. Where you start and where you finish has to be
carefully thought out. Attention must be paid to the details,
not just finishing the project, but doing the project with care
and quality. The project is going to be there for centuries,
so you want it to maintain its integrity for centuries into the
future. It's going to be a slow process compared to what
you see in normal construction today.
SH How long do you think it will take to realize this from front
MG Every bit of a year.
GP What was the result of the research into quarries and stone?
GM The spec gives three sources for the stone. There's a
Kitledge granite, a Chelmsford granite, and a Mount Airy granite.
The quarries do exist today, and we have samples from all of
them. Generally, the three granites are very similar in appearance.
GP The spec also says that «other quarries wishing to be considered
[must provide] satisfactory evidence that the quarry
has ample capacity and adequate fabrication facilities.»
HD The fabrication facility is really important when you're
looking at doing something like this. You don't want to get the
stone to the site and find that it's a little off. It has to get done
right the first time.
GP Are there stonemasons who can still work with this size material?
MG Yes. There are fewer of them than there used to be, but
they're still around. The methods haven't changed, but the
numbers of people doing this type of work, at least here in
New York City, have decreased.
GP Was Aldo Giurgola an alumnus of Penn? Was he a friend
PB Aldo was a Fulbright scholar from Rome who studied at
Columbia. He then got a teaching position at Cornell. From
there, he became an editor of Interiors magazine, in
Philadelphia and began teaching at Penn. Kahn was a very
important resource for him and a source of inspiration. He
had studied Kahn's work carefully. By 1967, Aldo had
become chairman of the architecture school at Columbia.
He came to New York with a very strong platform. He
taught with Kahn, Bacon, and Venturi in Philadelphia, and
he was equal to them in his own right. To work on the FDR
Memorial was a form of adulation, of wanting to honor Kahn.
It was also a way for Aldo to put his influence and reputation
in support of the project.
SH Mike talked about the physical challenges that must be overcome
to build the project, what do you see as the major obstacles?
PB Well, on almost any project, there must be the political will
to make it happen and the artistic will to support the design. I
believe that both forces are now aligned, and I trust that The
Cooper Union's exhibition will go a long way toward bringing
the project to the public eye.