Reform at the United Nations

The renovation of the UN's Secretariat building in New York will restore an icon of a different era. A pity, says Bloomberg's James Russell

(Bloomberg) — The thin, glassy slab of the United Nations Secretariat and the draping stone form of the General Assembly have been a serene presence along Manhattan's East River for almost 60 years.

This month the last of about 5,500 personnel are moving temporarily to make way for a long-delayed $1.9 billion program of updating and restoration.

The project offered a chance to create a forum suited to a membership that has grown to 192 countries from 70 and must deal with an era of AIDS, crushing poverty, terrorism and war.

What a pity that the UN aimed much lower.

"The project is a baseline infrastructure upgrade, not an expansion or office-improvement project," said John Clarkson, the deputy to the executive director of the UN's Capital Master Plan, Michael Adlerstein, at a recent presentation and tour.

By 2013 the building's guts—heating, cooling, lighting, safety and other systems—will be replaced. Otherwise the complex will be treated as a historic monument, and restored as closely as possible to its original condition.

Restoration alone may simply embalm UN hopes—about nations uniting to address world problems—that every year seem more remote from today's reality.

For now, the UN has no alternative but to fix what it has. Having the headquarters in New York, an effort to forestall U.S. isolationism, has fostered parochialism. Local politicians don't hesitate to turn foreign diplomats' unpaid parking tickets into international incidents, while U.S. officials squelch any UN building effort requiring their approval.

Blocked by Albany

Numerous attempts to add space at the headquarters have been rebuffed. The latest came in 2006, when the New York State legislature in Albany failed to approve a plan that would let the UN build a 35-story tower.

"Once it was clear that we would not get that approval from Albany, we moved quickly on the renovation," said Adlerstein, who is also a UN assistant secretary-general.

The original complex was hammered out in less than five contentious months in 1947 by a 10-member board of architects of international stature.

The UN asserts its singular importance on the skyline without grandiosity, a balance almost never achieved in symbolic public buildings. The design's staying power is a credit to the hard work of the design board, its egos expertly herded by Wallace K. Harrison, who had worked on Rockefeller Center.

Le Corbusier

The French architect Le Corbusier was the dominant—and domineering—intelligence of the team, and his sensibility is amply reflected in the final design. The key breakthrough, however, came from the Brazilian Oscar Niemeyer, now 102.

The critic Lewis Mumford called the UN "a slick mechanical job," which was meant as a swipe but now reads as a compliment, because the place still works. Its American pragmatism is humanized by Brazilian warmth, British dignity, French style and Scandinavian cool. In other words, almost everyone, wherever they are from, can embrace it.

The current project's designers were selected for technical expertise: Einhorn Yaffee Prescott, of Albany, and from New York City, HLW, Helpern Architects, Perkins Eastman and mechanical engineers Syska Hennessy Group.

An energy-saving window system will replace the 39-story- high glass walls of the Secretariat. It will lose the ill-chosen aqua tint added later. Inside, mazelike office walls will be replaced with an open plan, which may help break down ossified hierarchies.

The public interiors, crowded with exhibits and donated art work, will be cleaned up. Visitors should be able to appreciate their flowing elegance anew.

Ugly Hangar

The General Assembly will meet during construction in a hulking white-metal $143 million hangar erected on the north lawn. It's intentionally ugly, one participant said, so the organization won't be tempted to make it permanent.

Updated security measures could significantly alter the complex, but the UN refuses to show what it plans to do.

For years, a grotesque security-screening tent has defaced the north lawn. The First Avenue side of the General Assembly is treated like an equipment-littered back alley. A high fence and gritty sally ports create a menacing perimeter, sealing off once-handsome plantings and a line of flagpoles that made the UN an inviting neighbor and a symbol of hope. Designing security with dignity deserves the highest and most insightful level of attention.

Adlerstein said the UN still would like to consolidate many functions now scattered across a million square feet around New York. I feel such an expansion has transformative potential akin to Norman Foster's remodeling of the Berlin Reichstag.

Placing people on winding ramps within a transparent dome gave reunited Germany a powerful image that speaks to the future rather than to the tragic past.

I continue to hope the UN will someday assemble the best architects and problem solvers to create a forum that is truly capable of taking on the world's stupefying challenges.

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