New York’s United Nations Headquarters, completed in 1952, pioneered the global workplace. Now nearing the end of a $2.1 billion makeover, it’s again in the vanguard.
If you’re looking for world peace, this is where they make it. The United Nations occupies a cluster of structures, including the low-slung Conference building (which holds the Security Council chamber) and the swooping, domed General Assembly. But it’s the Secretariat building -- the again-youthful, 64-year-old slab standing upright on the edge of the East River -- that’s the UN’s contribution to the Manhattan skyline, Bloomberg Pursuits will report in its Spring 2014 issue. The blue-green glass, sparkling like a Nordic waterfall, is both authentic and new. The facade is indistinguishable from the original -- before it was hazed over with a protective film post-9/11 -- but it’s now blast resistant, energy efficient and hyperclear, so that the tower is again sharp and brilliant against the sky, like an image on an ultra-high-definition TV.
The new/old look is part of a nearly completed overhaul, which has restored an aesthetic of spare, elegant optimism to a campus that had gotten chaotically shabby. The UN’s 193 member states all contributed to the $2.1 billion budget; a few countries, including China, Russia and Turkey, also “adopted” specific rooms, which gave them the right to indulge in a bit of nationalistic decorating.
Everywhere you gaze, the refreshed UN looks like a period movie, the kind in which the vintage cars shine and every outfit is impeccably tailored. Workers have reupholstered the Security Council’s 60-year-old chairs in bright Naugahyde, scrubbed the water stains off limestone and marble panels, restored wall hangings, buffed terrazzo floors and scraped away decades of nicotine. The handsome green-marble ashtrays affixed to the walls of the Secretariat lobby have been covered with steel plates; city law doesn’t apply here, but in 2008, the UN voluntarily complied with New York’s ban on smoking in public places.
All the cosmetic improvements are but the icing on a high-risk rescue of a creaky modern landmark. Occasionally, after a rainstorm, leaking water doused dignitaries in the General Assembly Hall -- which in no way compensated for the then-total absence of a sprinkler system. Asbestos lurked everywhere. When workers began removing the Secretariat’s exterior glass curtain wall, they found that it was barely hanging on. “At some point, in a bad storm, the window frames would have started falling,” says Michael Adlerstein, the assistant secretary-general in charge of the renovation.
The surprises kept coming. Once demolition got under way, workers discovered that some concrete floor slabs were held together with wire mesh rather than reinforced with iron bars. Engineers tested the concrete’s strength by building an enormous tank on one of the floors and filling it with water. “It was a frightening moment,” Adlerstein says. After 48 hours, the slabs hadn’t budged.
Adlerstein and his crew had to contend with far more terrifying possibilities. After a car bomb blasted through the UN offices in Nigeria in 2011, security experts demanded that the Conference building, which is cantilevered over the FDR Drive, be fortified with extra steel. Meeting halls were moved away from the vulnerable sections, creating new lounges -- and fresh opportunities for décor. One such space, paid for by Qatar, looks like the lobby of a luxury hotel in Doha. Then, in October 2012, Hurricane Sandy pounded through New York, knocking out the brand-new air-conditioning system and causing $150 million in damage.
It might have been easier -- and possibly cheaper -- to tear the whole structure down and start from scratch. However, for an organization for which precedent and symbolism govern every handshake, the historical meaning of the UN’s architecture still resonates.
During World War II, various dictatorships had poisoned imperial neoclassicism and state-sponsored sumptuousness. So a global design team that included French-Swiss architect Le Corbusier, New Yorker Wallace Harrison and Brazil’s Oscar Niemeyer agreed on an international language of pristine, unfussy transparency. (That was virtually the last thing they agreed on.)
This cool aesthetic was not an easy sell when it banged up against inherited notions of grandeur. Vermont Senator Warren Austin warned that if the U.S. Congress was going to front the money for the General Assembly, the building had better have a dome. Niemeyer responded with a squashed, shallow hump that looked as though it had been half-buried in the roof. Workers later tried (unsuccessfully) to seal the roof by spraying on a crud-brown rubberized coating, making the cupola seem even more grudging. Adlerstein’s team is replacing the copper cladding, giving the General Assembly back its softly gleaming headgear and Capitoline dignity.
Negotiations between enshrined past and practical present can reach a point of exquisite subtlety. Conference chamber podiums, for instance, must now be low enough for disabled speakers to reach yet high enough to confer the UN’s traditional aura of prestige. One ancient rite has gone the way of cigarettes: the practice of requesting permission to speak by standing one’s nameplate vertically on the desk -- the diplomatic equivalent of raising an auction paddle. Now, delegates simply push a button, and the request pops up silently on the chairman’s screen, where it can be ignored more diplomatically than ever.
(Justin Davidson is the architecture and classical music critic for New York magazine. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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