by Sahar Khraibani
April 20, 2018
There are numerous ways for a person to encounter a monument: in most cases, one does not choose the encounter, but rather is confronted with it. In other instances, one makes a trip to see a monument, cited on a list of “ten must-see” this or that. Sometimes, one very intentionally visits a monument in order to understand the culture or place that it represents.
Most people don’t simply come across the Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial—they intentionally make a trip across the East River in order to see it. The Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial, part of a four-acre park called Four Freedoms, stands at the southernmost tip of Roosevelt Island. If one happens to gaze south, one has a clear-cut view of the United Nations Building, while to the north, one can see the Queensboro Bridge spanning the East River. The procession-like nature of approaching from the north—passing between a double row of trees that narrow as they approach the focal point of the sculpted bust of Roosevelt—can be likened to a pilgrimage. With the bust functioning as a centerpiece, it’s easy to confuse our magnetic draw towards monuments with their possession of intrinsic authority.
The monument, in its totality, is a roofless modern version of a Greek temple, built with granite. The renowned architect Louis Kahn was commissioned to design the memorial in 1972. His concept was simple: drawing inspiration from Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms speech of 1941, Kahn designed an open “room and a garden,” destined to be located at the bottom of the island. The trees on either side of the island form a “V” shape, and lead to a two-walled stone room at the water’s edge, framing views of the New York skyline and the harbor. Excerpts from Roosevelt’s speech are carved on the walls of the room-like space. In a 1973 talk given at Pratt Institute, Kahn himself talks about the significance of an architectural space in relation to the people that encounter it; and how both are interchangeably affected: ”The room wasn’t just architecture, but was an extension of self.”
Standing at the point of the island on a gloomy February day, in proximity to the relic of a smallpox hospital, one can’t but think about the “extension of self.” Are memorials a tool for an extension of self? Are they a tool for the extension of many selves? Extensions of a people and their ideals? Are they mere symbols of nationalistic pride or do they communicate much more than that? Something unadmitted and deeply ingrained?
The word “monument” originally comes from the Greek word mnemosynon, and the Latin moneo, which means ‘to remind,’ ‘to advise,’ or ‘to warn.’ The etymology of the word suggests that a monument allows us to see the past, and in turn helps us visualize what could materialize in the future. When used as an adjective in English, the word “monumental” makes a reference to something of significant size and power. The word memorial, on the other hand, comes from the Latin word memoriale, referring to a record or a memory, often presented in the form of a monument and serving as a reminder.
Monuments—and subsequently memorials—are a physical representation of power, of ideals set in stone: unchangeable, resistant to erosion and upheaval. This is perhaps why they torment many of us. They are, at their core, an attempt to place some understanding of history beyond dispute: this man was a hero, this leader was great, these ideals are ultimate, these words should be remembered:
In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms: the first is freedom of speech and expression—everywhere in the world. The second is freedom of every person to worship god in his own way—everywhere in the world. The third is freedom from want…everywhere in the world. The fourth is freedom from fear…anywhere in the world. 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.—Franklin Roosevelt, January 6, 1941
On February 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 declaring certain West Coast areas to be military zones; setting in motion the forced removal and imprisonment of all people of Japanese ancestry (citizens and noncitizens alike) living on the West Coast. This Order, made in the name of national security, followed Japan’s bombing of Pearl Harbor in Hawaii on December 7, 1941. The U.S. government incarcerated 120,000 citizens and legal residents without due process and with no constitutional protection to which they were entitled. The Four Freedoms speech, given in 1941, finds its addresser contradicting himself only a year later. Freedom from fear was nowhere to be found in the issuance of the Executive Order, and the fallacy of authority, seventy-seven years later, remains deeply engrained.
Contrasting the somber elegance of the monument, what stands out most notably on the procession towards the tip of Roosevelt Island is the monumental, bright red, Pepsi-Cola sign, hovering over the waters. In the midst of the serenity of the experience—albeit its deeply tormenting ideals put forth by words that were never lived by—and the surprising silence of such spaces, nothing screams louder than the icon for U.S. consumerist culture. As the viewer gazes at these words “freedom from want…everywhere in the world,” the Pepsi-Cola sign manages to remain in the field of vision. As you ponder these four freedoms, with Manhattan and the United Nations Building to your back, you can’t help but crave a soft drink.
Monuments are, of course, just that: inanimate physical spaces. Places subject to our gaze. Immovable and static. Surfaces on which snow lands and pigeons defecate. It is we who inject them with meaning. What we choose to commemorate as a people says as much about us as the moment or person we are attempting to commemorate. We see ourselves reflected in whatever shape the stone is in, whatever words carved on its surface. It is easy to wish upon yourself such histories, to think that they could, for a fraction of a second, belong to you. But, more often than not, they don’t. They belong to other times, a specific moment from the past, and other people. If the function of a memorial is to remind us of certain core values, one can’t help but wonder whose interests those values serve. Are they moral? Are they national? And how is it that those two distinct categories merge and blend within us when beholden to the constructed space of a monument? Memorials are not like other spaces. They’re constructed to serve a function: remembering, connecting, and then projecting. They are inherently linked to a certain idea of temporality: that of constructing the past into the present for the future.
In the process of remembering, are we forgetting to practice these core values? Are we accepting the neatly packaged idea of a past that perhaps should be more questioned? Are we exonerating individuals and institutions that should instead be held accountable? Are we comforted by the fact that such ideals are carved in stone, that they will always be there, and thus we need not deal with them or make them a reality? The first thing I was taught about history as a child growing up in the Middle East was that we are doomed to repeat it. Our past evades us, and any study of history will reveal that, for the most part, we fail to learn from our past mistakes. The four freedoms described by Roosevelt remain, till today, abstract ideas for the majority of the world’s population.