Fixing the World

Inside the public entrance to the new United Nations General Assembly Building, October 1, 1952. Photo: UN Photo/55764

The 60-year-old United Nations complex, which almost entirely lacks sprinklers, blastproof windows, and many essentials of contemporary diplomatic architecture, does have lots of one amenity that its designers considered indispensable: ashtrays. In the lobby of the U.N.’s most visible building, the Secretariat tower, lovingly designed geometric cigarette receptacles protrude from green marble walls. In the great public rooms, pairs of vinyl-covered chairs are joined by steel bowls that haven’t seen ash in years.

The original trinity of U.N. buildings—the Secretariat, the low-slung swoop of the General Assembly, and the boxy conference building—is a decaying time machine. Rain seeps around ancient windows and leaches asbestos from crumbling ducts. Cumbersome fire doors break up the once-flowing hallways. An improvised tent for metal detectors vitiates any sense of grandeur in the approach. Where once the architecture promised a more perfect world, now it has clearly seen better days.

Renovation has begun. Already, the horseshoe desk is gone from the Security Council chamber, leaving a concrete husk where Colin Powell once detailed Saddam Hussein’s nonexistent weapons of mass destruction. Soon the Secretariat will shed its skin of blue-green glass, which in certain light looks made of seawater. The deliberate devastation will continue for a couple of years, as heads of state convene in a makeshift warehouse on the campus’s north lawn. Yet as the technology gets brought up to date, this period piece of mid-century modernism—shrine to a time when discussions about genocide and hunger took place amid eddies of cigarette smoke—will be meticulously reassembled. “We will keep the old ashtrays and make them into flowerpots, and we’ll take the Naugahyde and Formica and restore them. We’ll remove 60 years of nicotine stains from the wood,” says Michael Adlerstein, the assistant secretary general in charge of the renovation.

You can’t change a lightbulb in the General Assembly without smacking into modern architecture’s preservation paradox: By the time a building is significant enough to be saved, its significance has irrevocably changed. Structures that once embraced the future become museums of obsolescence. Icons of efficiency are treasured despite their impracticality. At the U.N., these contradictions are exaggerated because its then-fresh form of architecture crystallized immense global ambitions. Now the same design enshrines a murkier history of accomplishments and disappointments.

Among the United Nations’ first tasks—before the partition of Palestine or the Universal Declaration of Human Rights—was to shop for a home, and it found one on a derelict stretch of slaughterhouses and slums along the East River. In 1947, the organization summoned architects from around the world. The pragmatic New Yorker Wallace K. Harrison found himself placating squabbling visionaries. Le Corbusier and Oscar Niemeyer, in particular, fought over the shape, number, and orientation of the buildings, whether the glass curtain wall should include a sun-shading grid of stone, and—most ferociously—who got credit for what. Le Corbusier complained to his mother of the “apparent kidnapping of [his] U.N. project by USA gangster Harrison.” The cocktail of haste, diplomacy, vanity, and genius might have yielded an architectural hangover. Instead, it produced the first monument of postwar modernism.

One thing they and their clients could agree on was that a new world should adopt a new architecture, glittering with innocence, transparency, and logic. This emblem of international comity was also a monument to paper-shuffling, which was precisely the point. The Secretariat is a hive of functionaries, a vast receptacle of diplomatic industry, and it projects a clear and simple message: Peace takes work. Many critics found the complex soulless and its creators deluded in the idea that World War III could be averted by orderly administration. “If the Secretariat Building will have anything to say as a symbol, it will be, I fear, that the managerial revolution has taken place and that bureaucracy rules the world,” wrote Lewis Mumford in The New Yorker.

All these decades later, the U.N. might have decided to rebrand itself, tearing the whole thing down and erecting a glittering new palace. Or it could have crammed into the existing campus a gaudy new addition designed by an architect of suitably global stature. The organization is in New York but not of it; as sovereign territory jointly owned by 192 member states, the buildings aren’t bound by the city’s zoning code or landmark laws. The U.N. could have reshaped a significant chunk of Manhattan without so much as a phone call to the mayor.

Fortunately for New York, an organization founded to change the world has become unbudgeably conservative, and so it will restore the telegenic public spaces and legend-laden halls. A pair of Brazilian murals in the delegates’ lobby will be shipped home to be cleaned. The shapely blond-wood kiosk in the visitors’ lobby will be sent out to a furniture restorer. Craftsmen will build new copies of the colored steel boxes that enclose the ceiling lights in the Trusteeship Council Chamber. New signs will get fifties-style lettering to blend with the old.

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.

Fixing the World