FDR_Statue_Roosevelt_Island

On June 13, 2015, a recently completed memorial on the southernmost tip of Roosevelt Island came under the national spotlight. The newly-announced presidential candidate Hilary Clinton had chosen to kick-start her campaign at the Four Freedoms Park, a memorial dedicated to President Franklin Roosevelt and his famous Four Freedoms Speech from 1941. By evoking Roosevelt’s legacy, Clinton sought to draw support for her policies and candidacy. The well-calculated decision, however, was as strategic as it is provocative in its symbolism. Would one be able to imagine a candidate holding a similar event in, say, the Lincoln Memorial? The sanctity of the Lincoln Memorial surely commands a greater respect that a campaign rally has to offer. What, then, makes the Four Freedoms Park an acceptable site?

Answering this question warrants a closer look at Four Freedoms Park. Walking towards the memorial, one is welcomed by two rows of well-trimmed linden trees that lead up to a bust of Roosevelt. Behind the sculpture there is a room composed of square granite blocks, one of which is inscribed with an excerpt from the Four Freedoms speech. It outlines Roosevelt’s vision for a democratic world defined by the freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. “That is no vision of a distant millennium; it is a definite basis for a kind of world attainable in our own time and generation,” Roosevelt declared in 1941, mobilizing America to enter into World War II. With this powerful speech at its center, the design of the memorial aims to instill a sense of awe and appreciation for Roosevelt. Visitors are supposed to leave inspired by the power of his words.

In a purely physical way, the memorial stands out from its more traditionally-designed counterparts. Most noticeably, its minimalist aesthetic contrasts sharply against the classical ornamentation of the Lincoln Memorial. The origin of this change in style can be traced back to a long history of debate over memorial design, which first began in the postwar era. Within the American architectural community of the ’40s, there arose a call for a new approach to creating monumentality. A somewhat elusive concept, monumentality was defined by the Harvard professor Sigfried Giedion as “things that remind.” Giedion observed that the classical style of old was no longer able to command a sense of wonder and respect from the public. Instead, a new expression of monumentality was necessary to capture the essence of modernity. Developing this view further, Louis Kahn—the architect of Four Freedoms Park who was featured in the 2004 Academy Awards best documentary nominee My Architect—attempted to use new architectural forms to evoke awe and reverence in his design. The Salk Institute in La Jolla, for example, was widely celebrated for Kahn’s extraordinary ability to capture light and beauty through geometry.

This new approach, however, was not without its own problems. Many contemporaries of Kahn failed in their attempts to create awe-inspiring monuments without classical ornaments. For instance, in the 1960 Roosevelt memorial design competition, the winning design by William Pedersen and Bradford Tilney featured eight colossal concrete tablets, which, like Four Freedoms Park, were to be inscribed with Roosevelt’s speeches. The design reached for grandeur but fell short of impressing the public, earning it the nickname “instant Stonehenge.” More critically, it did not win the approval of the Commission of Fine Arts and the Roosevelt family and was ultimately rejected. Juxtaposed against this history of difficulties, Four Freedoms Park stands as an exception among projects of its kind. It succeeded where others have failed, assuming a character both grand and modern at the same time.

But formal appearance is by no means the only difference between Four Freedoms Parks and its more classical counterparts. A greater difference separates the two than meets the eye. In recent times, many social theorists—for example, French sociologist Pierre Nora—have conjectured that as a society, our capacity for memory has been slipping because of an “acceleration of history.” Mass media has enabled us to circulate information at an increasing rate and volume. As new information competes with the past for a place in our collective memory, monuments are created to remember our history for us. Today, the trend of building monuments has reached such a level that it has even been labelled as a “monument sprawl.”

The case of Four Freedoms Park, however, differs slightly. Its history goes further back than its recent completion would suggest. First conceived in the 1970s as part of the revitalization of Welfare Island (now Roosevelt Island) under New York Mayor John Lindsay, it had remained unrealized for nearly forty years due to funding shortages. When the park finally opened in 2012, President Bill Clinton commented on the Park’s history, claiming that perhaps “it is altogether fitting that this day was delayed until a time when we knew that we could never take the Four Freedoms for granted.” Indeed, our world today stands as a sharp contrast to the ideal world of the four freedoms. With a growing rhetoric of fear in our political discourse and inequality on the rise, our society is hardly free from fear or want. The need for Four Freedoms Park to rekindle the optimism and idealism of a bygone generation is therefore perceived as more important than ever before.

But will contemporary visitors actually experience the awe that the design had hoped to inspire? When Louis Kahn first designed the park, he intended to maximize the view of New York’s stunning skyline with the hope that it would rouse its visitors. However, as we are increasingly connected to social networks such as Instagram and Snapchat, the skyline’s awe has perhaps been diminished, taking on the guise as merely a background for an Instagram post. It would be cynical to argue that the value of the monument has been fully compromised as a result, but the question of how a monument can continue to serve its function in the face of social networks and information overload must be addressed.

To this end, a non-profit conservancy has been established to oversee the memorial in partnership with the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation. The Four Freedoms Park Conservancy serves to provide educational initiatives and public programming to promote the ideals of Roosevelt. By offering activities as diverse as pop-up bookstands, yoga sessions, and photography lessons, it ensures that the memorial stays connected to the fabric of everyday life. The memorial is as much as a park as it is a monument.

The postwar architects were perhaps right about the need for a new monumentality, but the answer lies in a yet-deeper question of what it means to be modern. In many ways, modernity is marked by the triumph of the everyday. Monuments, therefore, should no longer be treated as singular objects that are somehow distinct from our everyday lives, but rather as a kind of social underpinning. They are the express statements of what is worthy of remembrance, but more importantly, modern memorials should help sustain discussions of our past rather than trying to replace the past. A monument—old or new—is not a surrogate for history or memory.

Image Source: Alexisrael via Wikimedia Commons

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