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Fixing the World

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That approach may disappoint anyone hoping for a fresh architectural expression of the U.N.’s mission, but the balance of restoration and renewal nevertheless makes a ringing statement: that the organization remains committed to its founding beliefs. In 1952, the showy rationality of the architecture declared that misery and warfare were not endemic conditions but problems to be solved. The current rehabilitation is a victory for preservation and optimism—that is, for both the past and the future.

Every renovation is a negotiation with the past. This one is so freighted with symbolism that each decision contains the potential for diplomatic conflict. “If I put everything back exactly as it was in 1952, there would be a consensus that I did a great job,” says Adlerstein. “But I’m trying to improve things too, and anything you do that’s different gets … noticed.”

For starters, there’s something unpalatable about taking money that could be used to shelter earthquake victims and building nicer meeting rooms instead, which means that the U.N. had to get nearly 200 governments to pony up a special assessment. Some countries were willing to spend more in exchange for special treatment. Adlerstein had to break off one of our interviews in order to meet a Chinese delegation that was considering sponsoring the redesign of a conference room. Even the U.N.’s international legion of office drones has a culture of its own, and its rigid code of ranks and perks ran headlong into the decision to eliminate most private offices in the Secretariat Building.

Accordingly, as the $2 billion master plan simmered for more than a decade, the building grew tattier. Just hiring a landscape architect took two years. Building materials are coming from China, Germany, and Canada, partly to avoid the impression that it is an all-American undertaking. Even the research for this article ran afoul of U.N. procedures: Blanket confidentiality rules prevented the project’s architects from speaking on the record, and the Russian ambassador vetoed a photograph of the Security Council’s demolition.

“The U.N. incorporates all the cultures of the world in its bureaucracy,” Adlerstein says. “It’s not designed for efficiency.” In order to move the renovation forward, the organization had to grant him the kind of fast-track powers usually reserved for international emergencies and peacekeeping operations. Even so, Adlerstein says, the only reason he can get the job done is because, after decades of overseeing the restorations of the White House, the National Parks buildings, and the Statue of Liberty as a U.S. government employee, he has outgrown tactfulness. “I’m not planning to have a career in the U.N.,” he says. “I’ll step on a few toes to do this project, and then leave.”

Even if Adlerstein wanted to do nothing but re-create the U.N.’s sparkling first days, he would still be doing violence to its historical integrity. The General Assembly Building entrance hall is a coolly sacramental space, where ceremony and simplicity intertwine. Chalky sunlight filters through a wall of translucent windows into an atrium lined by sinuous white balconies. The glass, etched with a now-defunct photographic process, will be junked and replaced with a more or less faithful copy that could wind up affecting the space’s natural glow. The scalloped information desk will lose its accretions of signage, but it can’t go all the way back to the days before bulky computer monitors.

Preserving a postwar modern building can require an Invasion of the Body Snatchers approach: Construct an apparently identical substitution. The Secretariat Building will get a lighter, tougher, clearer curtain wall, made of blast-resistant panes that should bow but not shatter under the force of an explosion, and fastened into stronger, more pliable frames—all of it dressed up to resemble the technology of yore. Once, the light, transparent skin expressed the structure’s efficient functionality; now it disguises the building’s defenses.

David Fixler, an architect at the Boston firm Einhorn Yaffe Prescott who specializes in preserving mid-century works, says that the best way to be faithful to advanced postwar architecture is to honor its principles and discard its physical components. “Modern architecture anticipates change and expresses progress,” Fixler says. “Very few buildings of the modern era were designed for the ages.” Created for work and then grandly neglected, the U.N. will have to jump into the present directly from the era of reel-to-reel tape and rotary telephones. The wiring of the delegates’ desks, the interpreters’ booths, the air conditioning, and the lighting will all change, ideally without disturbing the aesthetic of clunky switches and boxy fixtures. In its public spaces, at least, the U.N. will be the institutional equivalent of a rotary cell phone, a paradoxical mash of contemporary technology in vintage packaging.

If a whiff of careful fakery clings to the renovation, it, too, belongs in the U.N.’s tradition of improvisational theater. The General Assembly, topped with a perfunctory dome and visible ducts, and fitted out not in marble, mahogany, and leather but in green carpeting, blond wood, and vinyl, suggests an austere kind of grandeur. But it also provides wacked-out potentates with a platform for their scenes of elaborately scripted rage. Think of Nikita Khrushchev banging his shoe, Fidel Castro fulminating for hours, Muammar Qaddafi shredding the U.N. charter, Hugo Chávez complaining that George W. Bush had tainted the dais with the devil’s sulfurous smell. “The U.N. is a showcase of global democracy, and it needs to look like what it is: a stage set,” says architectural scholar Aaron Betsky, who runs the Cincinnati Art Museum. The United Nations is New York’s longest-running political revue, and the producers are not about to tinker with the scenery.


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