Artistic Inversions of Isolation and Confinement: Public Art, Architecture, and the Liberation of Space on Roosevelt Island | Deborah Vess
Blackwell’s Island, now called Roosevelt Island, was originally a remote location be-tween Manhattan and Queens where New York City confined petty criminals, the men-tally disabled, and the “incurables,” those who had serious physical illnesses or disabilities. A disproportionate number of these people were impoverished immigrants labeled by eugenics theories as “undesirable” elements of society. Journalist Nellie Bly remarked that Blackwell’s was “easy to get into but once there it is impossible to get out.” The island was a microcosm of issues faced by ethnic and disabled groups in the nineteenth-century United States and a mirror of the painful debate about who was or could be embraced as an American. Lofty, more humane ideals drove the architectural design of the buildings, yet the lived realities in these institutions betrayed those ideals on a daily basis. As the city and the island have evolved, these institutions have vanished, leaving behind haunting ruins that public art projects have now transformed into inclusive spaces connected to Manhattan and the world beyond.
The development of structures on Blackwell’s Island occurred in three distinct phases, each reflecting responses to changing social, economic, and political issues. From 1828 to 1921, architects designed the island’s Penitentiary, Lunatic Asylum, and Smallpox Hospital to embody lofty ideals of humane care and rehabilitation. The subsequent deterioration of conditions undermined those original ideals and design intentions. In 1921, the island became Welfare Island in an effort to deemphasize the island’s barbarous past and to promote the charitable work of its hospitals. From 1921 to 1973, corruption in Blackwell’s Penitentiary and overcrowding elsewhere led to the closure of many of the original facilities on the island. While the Smallpox Hospital fell into ruins after 1955, the city demolished the prison to make way for newer and more advanced facilities. The Goldwater Hospital, built on the ruins of the penitentiary, promoted accessibility through architectural design and integrated the buildings with the environment. Art enlivened the interior spaces of the campus. In 1973 Mayor John Lindsay’s work to enact the Great Society impacted the island as the city renamed it in honor of former president Franklin Delano Roosevelt. From 1973 until the present, public art has played a pivotal role in reconfiguring and inverting the space on the island. Louis Kahn’s Four Freedoms Park and other works have successfully embraced those who were formerly outcast on the island and brought the island itself into the Manhattan arts scene. Cornell Tech’s reflective façades have symbolically brought the city to the island. Those who developed these projects have built on earlier failed efforts and successfully inverted the space. In what follows, I examine the transformations of the island’s structures in these three periods and the trends that drove its change over time.
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