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The Keep

America’s medieval new U.N. mission.

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A fortress tower has risen in Turtle Bay, surveying its neighborhood with a suspicious glower. The concrete-paneled pillar opens grudgingly as it rises, transitioning from a blank wall to perforations just wide enough for an archer, to vast executive windows near the top. The structure embodies the latest in security doctrine and technology, but it has a stark, medieval look, as if it were meant to defend against catapults and trebuchets. Welcome to your friendly federal government’s new diplomatic presence on the Manhattan skyline.

This is in some ways an open city. New Yorkers have become accustomed to sleeping, working, shopping, and dining in transparent enclosures, with thin glass membranes protecting us from the only force that makes its daily presence known: the weather. But the new United States Mission to the United Nations, at 45th Street and First Avenue, is made for a lethal world. Despite the laconic elegance of its composition, courtesy of the architects Gwathmey Siegel & Associates, the new redoubt broadcasts a primitive mixture of toughness and fear. Its air of armored secrecy hints at unspeakable things going on in soundproof rooms, even if in reality all that gets pushed around in there is papers.

It would be glib to impute any narrow political meaning to a project commissioned in the Clinton era, designed during the Bush years, and still months away from a ribbon-cutting. Yet government architecture is supposed to be symbolic. After Timothy McVeigh pulverized Oklahoma City’s Federal Building, the Chicago architect Carol Ross Barney replaced it with a defensible but serene glass ellipse, not a hunkered carapace. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, a reunited Germany topped its ancestral Parliament with a see-through dome, designed by Norman Foster, that has become one of Berlin’s biggest tourist attractions. These buildings do not naïvely imply that we have little to fear and nothing to hide, but they do suggest that terror and duplicity are unwise political philosophies.

The architects of the new U.S. mission—including Charles Gwathmey, who died last summer—have made a nod to openness by wrapping the base in a glass-walled lobby with an attractively wavy canopy. But that contemporary flourish does not prevent the tower from harking back to not only the twelfth century but also to the middle of the twentieth. Spare lines invoke the loftier, more utopian modernism of the U.N. complex across First Avenue. And the impenetrable mass recalls the architecture that flourished in the sixties, another period rife with threats, when institutions and architects fell in love with pourable, pliable, dense, and rugged concrete, and developed a style unkindly known as brutalism. The word comes from the French term for rough concrete, béton brut, but it also describes a belligerent, quasi-medieval aesthetic. The specific fears have changed—terrorism has replaced invasion and riots—but it’s a familiar unease that has brought this latest incarnation of brutalism.

Every secure enclosure, whether it’s a castle, a complex, or an entire country, defines a perimeter of concern: We’re safe inside; the rest of you are on your own. A car bomb might peel off the federal tower’s “sacrificial façade,” shatter the glass-walled skyscrapers next door, and crater First Avenue, but America’s diplomats would, one hopes, remain unscathed inside their reinforced cocoon. Gwathmey’s bunker may function perfectly, but as an icon of democracy, it can only fail.

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