Kahn Without Kahn

The FDR Memorial on Roosevelt Island is nearing completion. I am of two minds about this undertaking, which is based on the design that Louis Kahn was working on when he died in March 1974. It was, literally, his last project. There are so precious few Kahn works, that who could object to one more? But as David De Long, who co-curated the major 1991 exhibition on Kahn observes, “Posthumous realizations are always very, very risky.” They are particularly risky in the case of Kahn, who was famous for making last-minute changes, often after construction had started—to the consternation of his office staff, not to mention clients. So although the current project is based on construction drawings that had been prepared by Kahn’s office, these should not necessarily be considered as definitive. Even great artists have second thoughts. When Henry Bacon and Daniel Chester French were working on the Lincoln Memorial, and the building was largely completed, they had a plaster replica of the projected statue erected inside the building to study its scale, and decided it was too small and needed to be enlarged. The bronze head of the President recently installed in the FDR Memorial looks to me as if it were trapped in a vice. Who is to say that Kahn would not have refined the memorial design, in small ways and large, had he been alive to do so? We will never know.

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