Unbuilt New York #1 – The Memory of the Memorial

This week I’ll be posting from New York, New York and since hurricane Sandy promises to keep me indoors, bored and focused on my writing, I’ll take the opportunity to dig up some of the most significant unbuilt visions for this most visionary of cities.

I discovered Louis Kahn as a first year architecture student back in Oporto in Alvaro Siza’s class. Because the busy master was trying to produce some of his freer, curvier designs (swimming pools at Cornella de Llobregat, Ibere Camargo Foundation, pavilion in Korea), we only had the privilege of his enlightening words in a once a year session. Our turn was about the public space around Santa Monica and Kahn’s Salk Institute. Kahn got stuck in my brain like chewing gum to the hair. I never managed to get rid of him and I’m still not ready to shave him off.

Someone in my class had Kent Larson’s “Louis I. Kahn, Unbuilt Masterworks” where Kahn’s unrealized projects where rendered as architectural ghosts in strange landscapes.

Some of Kahn’s most important projects never went through. In his later years, after he had his epiphany in Rome, Kahn’s work was suddenly brilliant and radical and difficult to pick apart, which meant it had a hard time being built.

One of these luminous projects was the Memorial to the Six Million Jews planned for the Battery Park in New York City and never constructed.

The project had a tumultuous development.

The first commissions for a New York memorial evoking the Holocaust where already in place in 1947 and several proposals – including one by Erich Mendelsohn – were put forward and rejected in the next decades, deemed too sentimental or too figurative, or simply not able to gather sufficient funding.

Kahn eventually got the direct commission for the memorial in 1966 under the recommendation of an Art Advisory Committee that included Philip Johnson.

Kahn’s proposal, of which several versions exist, was showcased for a month in the lobby of the Museum of Modern Art, gauging the public’s reaction. At the time, it must have shocked the audience. The business of memory was easily given to direct representations of the event, easy to understand, quick to generate emotion.

Kahn’s attempt was a first in a now ubiquitous style of memorials: abstract, allusive, stylized, much like Jewish symbolism and its reliance on language and letter.

Seven square pavilions were arrayed on top of a square elevated plinth, accessible from all sides. Each pavilion was integrally made up of layers of elongated cast glass bricks. Only the central cube was to be accessible and inscribed, the others remained mute.

The usage of glass bricks was meant to filter the light and change the ambience of the space according to the atmosphere. I imagine that an overcast day would close up the pavilions, making them almost like perfectly cut stones. Sun would make them come alive and glow, as light got trapped inside the translucent cubes. Louis Kahn was using his solemn vocabulary, quite adapt to the impossible task of the remembrance of the Holocaust, but with a contemporary, sensual twist: the thick glass bricks playing with light and bringing us away from memory, back to the present moment.

I haven’t yet been to the Battery Park on this trip and the perfect storm that is building up is likely to keep me inland. If I end up making the pilgrimage to the memorial that is not there, I’ll be sure to make a deep, long, mental bow.

In the meantime, I’ll visit Roosevelt Island and walk on the one memorial that Kahn was able to build, when he was already just a memory himself.

Be sure to tune in for another Unbuilt New York project, just after the break.

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3 comments

  1. In nomine pater

    Stay safe. Very interesting posts, always the highlight of the week.

  2. Kahn was a genius. Glass bricks are back in fashion again, at least here in Melbourne, but to distill a memorial in the way he proposed displays great architectural precision and strength of character. If only it had been built…

    • DLA

      Hi Warwick. Indeed he was. His proposal for the memorial was too original and too profound to be designed by committee. That’s what happens to some great public buildings. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

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