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Exploring Roosevelt Island's New Four Freedoms Park

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Welcome back to Camera Obscura, Curbed's series of photo essays by Nathan Kensinger. Every other week, Kensinger will explore one of the city's less-known corners, beginning with the new parks built during the Bloomberg administration. Up now, Roosevelt Island's new Four Freedoms Park.


[Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park was opened to the public on October 24th, 2012. All photos by Nathan Kensinger.]

After decades of delays, Louis Kahn's Four Freedoms Park is now open to the public at the southern end of Roosevelt Island. Lauded by the Times as "nothing less than a new spiritual heart" for New York City, this monument to President Franklin D. Roosevelt is shaped like a great stone ship riding the tides of the East River. Created from what appears to be an entire quarry of granite, the space is an undeniably intense architectural vision that funnels visitors through a somber, rigid space towards a giant bust of FDR. But what is this newly sculpted landscape like as a public park, having replaced a much different environment?

The site of Four Freedoms Park was previously a semi-wild home to scraggly trees and enterprising fishermen, where visitors had unsupervised freedom to explore the waterfront, and where a large open field hosted unique public art projects like The Encampment. All of that is gone now, replaced by a tightly regimented unnatural landscape covered by perfectly aligned arbors and walkways. Though it is called a park, Four Freedoms is essentially a large sculpture where park-like activities are not allowed. "To preserve the sanctity of this site," the rules ask that you "quietly stroll" but do not engage in biking, skating, fishing, climbing, and eating or drinking anything other than water. 

A crew of vigilant guards hover throughout the park and patrol constantly in a golf cart, making sure visitors do not overstep the boundaries. "Policing graffiti artists and skateboarders must be weighed against the park's freedom theme," the Times notes, but park employees have even gone so far as to radically alter Louis Kahn's design in their attempts to control visitors' behavior. In the "Room" at the end of the park, where the public is meant to descend several steps and stand in silent contemplation of the East River, park employees have flooded the lower step to create a shallow moat, keeping visitors away from the monument's penultimate edge. This design change was made after opening day because of concerns for "public safety," according to a guard standing nearby. 

However, Four Freedoms Park is still young and remains a work-in-progress, as evidenced by its temporary entrance gate, where visitors are greeted by flimsy laminated paper signs taped onto a controversial $30,000 fence that may soon need to be dismantled. Although Four Freedoms might not yet be the "monumental triumph for New York and for everyone who cares about architecture and public space" that the Times declared it to be, time will soon pass, its trees will grow, its granite will slowly be darkened by the elements, and it will evolve into the hallowed, revered space it strives to be.

At the monuments' entrance, a grand staircase brings visitors up to a central lawn. 

The steps look out onto James Renwick's ruined smallpox hospital, which is part of neighboring Southpoint Park. 

The central lawn leads visitors away from the ruins and towards a large sculpture of FDR's head and the "Room."

This section of the island was once a rocky open field, as seen in this photograph from the 2007 public art installation "The Encampment." 

Today the unkempt open field has been replaced by a manicured landscape.

Perfectly aligned rows of young trees have been planted into glazed pebble paths. 

Alongside the central lawn, stone walkways takes visitors on a similarly rigid route towards the southern tip of Roosevelt Island.

Visitors are not allowed to climb onto any stone surfaces in the park, and are kept far from the waters edge, but are allowed a unique view of the United Nations.

Inside the "Room" - the focal point of the park - FDR's Four Freedoms speech is chiseled into a wall and watched over by guards.

A visitor to the monument reads FDR's speech. 

The "Room" is a large granite box that focuses visitors attention out onto the East River.

Visitors are kept from standing at the edge of the monument by an improvised moat. 

The view of the East River celebrates local landmarks like Con Edison's 14th street power house (left) and U Thant Island (far right).
?Nathan Kensinger
· Official site: Four Freedoms Park [fdrfourfreedomspark.org]
· Official site: Nathan Kensinger Photography [kensinger.blogspot.com]
· Nathan Kensinger archive [Curbed]

Four Freedoms Park

Roosevelt Island, E Rd., New York, NY