The cool modernist ensemble of United Nations buildings that Wallace K. Harrison called a “workshop for peace” will soon be a workshop for long-overdue renovations. After breaking ground last month on the northern lawn of the U.N. complex for a 175,000-square-foot concrete and steel temporary building to house U.N. conferences and the office of the secretary-general until at least 2014, U.N. officials will relocate thousands of staffers from buildings completed in 1950.
Actual work on one of the world’s most recognizable architectural ensembles comes after ten contentious years of preparation and a series of different plans for overhauling the asbestos-filled structures, which have serious leak problems and antiquated mechanical infrastructure. After the attacks of September 11, 2001, security concerns gave greater urgency to planning for any potential attack on the 18-acre site.
In 1998, the U.N. General Assembly, which represents all the organization’s 192 member states, voted to completely overhaul the buildings, which had undergone ad hoc alterations over five decades. An initial plan envisioned renovating the complex section by section while staff remained on-site, to minimize the need to pay high rents in New York’s booming real estate market. An alternate scheme would have involved building a second 35-story U.N. tower on a playground immediately south of the current ensemble. In 2001, an expanded visitors’ center was proposed under the North Lawn. The current plan relies on placing the U.N. leadership and conferences in a temporary structure on U.N. property, which will be demolished after renovation is completed, and locating most of the personnel in leased office space.
The cost for the entire six-year project, called the capital master plan, is estimated at $1.9 billion. The U.N.’s three principal buildings, designed by a team that included Le Corbusier, Oscar Niemeyer, and Wallace K. Harrison, were built in 1949 and 1950 for $65 million on land bought for $8.5 million by the Rockefeller family and then donated to the international organization. A fourth building, the Dag Hammarskjöld Library, opened in 1961.
Steven Pressler of Skanska, the construction manager, characterized the ensemble as “old, in need of a facelift,” and called the project “a big demolition job with a lot of asbestos thrown in; then building it back is almost building it like new.” Einhorn Yaffee Prescott Architecture & Engineering is the lead architect for historic preservation, and R.A. Heintges is consulting on the restoration of the curtain wall. HLW International is developing interior design guidelines and is designing the North Lawn building.
“As with all institutions, the last place they wanted to put their scarce resources was in fixing up their own house, so the U.N. delayed the decision, because resources are scarce, and their mission is extremely broad, but after 9/11 it raised the priority of making this project happen,” said Michael Adlerstein, the architect who now heads the capital master plan. Adlerstein had previously been vice president of the New York Botanical Garden and was a student of George Dudley, author of the most comprehensive study of the design and construction of the U.N. Adlerstein’s predecessor, John Frederick Reuter IV, quit two years ago in frustration over the increasingly political nature of the process. “I am interested in building buildings, not ‘selling’ them,” Reuter said. “Perhaps the biggest challenge has been to convince member states, and particularly the host country, that the physical condition of the United Nations Headquarters is not a political matter."
Selling the renovation has indeed been a challenge. The plan required the unanimous approval of the 192 U.N. member states in the General Assembly, and winning support in New York and Washington was yet another battle. In 2004, the organization held an architecture competition, restricted to Pritzker Prize winners, for a 35-story tower that would provide swing space for staff displaced during construction and eventually house U.N. offices that are now in rental buildings, at below-market rents, controlled by a public firm called the United Nations Development Corporation. Richard Meier, one of those considered, dropped out of the running, calling the cramped First Avenue site inappropriate for a building of that scale. (He subsequently designed four towers nearby on the East River waterfront for the developer Sheldon Solow; these are still in the approvals stage.) The commission was awarded to Fumihiko Maki of Japan, whose sleek grey column was chosen over entries by Foster + Partners and Herzog & de Meuron.
The site, however, was a concrete patch called the Robert Moses Playground, and construction required a vote by the New York State Senate to enable “alienation” of parkland, even though the plan provided for a riverbank esplanade of comparable size in exchange. The local New York City Council member, Dan Garodnick, points out that his district has the least parkland in the city.
Elected officials found that attacking the U.N. was even more effective than attacking the French. At the end of 2004, the State Senate delayed a vote, citing a history of unpaid parking tickets by U.N. personnel, alleged anti-semitism, and opposition to the U.S. invasion of Iraq. “I view Mr. [Kofi] Annan’s stonewalling on the release of oil-for-food documents to Congress as a potential cover-up for corruption and will use it as leverage to deny passage of state legislation,” vowed State Senator Martin Golden in a letter to the New York Times in January 2006. Golden carried the day. The matter never came to a vote, despite support from Mayor Bloomberg, then-governor George Pataki, and the Bush administration. “It was politics, pure politics,” said Edward Rubin, an architect who chairs the Land Use Committee of Community Board 6 in Manhattan.
In 2005, the ever-opinionated Donald Trump weighed in. After building his Trump World Tower on a site overlooking the complex, he was contacted by the Swedish delegation for some informal advice. He testified before the International Security Subcommittee of the U.S. Senate, and suggested that the U.N. sell its East River campus and use the profits to create a new building on the site of the former World Trade Center. Trump also offered to renovate the original East Side buildings himself for $300 million, warning that U.N. costs (which he said would rise to $3 billion) had been inflated by internal “corruption and incompetence.” Part of the problem, he added, was that the organization would be extorted for short-term office space by New York landlords—”There is no worse human being on Earth, okay?” Trump said. U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan urged Trump to bid on the project, but he never filed a bid. “He would only do it if the U.N. were to have offered it to him, and under the rules of procurement, it would be literally impossible to source a project of this size to a single vendor,” said Adlerstein.
Some critics even wondered whether the iconic buildings were worth preserving. “I always found this futurist architectural experiment tacky,” said former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. John Bolton, who was frustrated in his effort to link U.S. support for the renovation to a general reform of the U.N.’s procurement process. “I found the General Assembly [building] to be vaguely fascist,” he added.
Even those who admire its architecture still call the complex a firetrap. In testimony before Congress in 2005, a U.N. official predicted that a serious explosion at the U.N. would spray asbestos throughout the neighborhood. And since it doesn’t even have a sprinkler system, the U.N. fails to meet New York City fire code.
Most of the renovation work, when completed, will be invisible to the visitor, said Adlerstein, although the sleek wood-paneled Security Council Chamber and the General Assembly will get interiors that are closer to their original bright colors than today’s muted seating. Since the manufacturers of some original materials are no longer in business, and certain woods used in conference rooms came from endangered species, approximations will be made, architects say.
The dramatic change will be in the east and west facades of the Secretariat tower. The leaking, corroded aluminum curtain wall will be removed to replace decaying surfaces and increase its energy efficiency. In the process, a layer of thermal film between the double-pane windows will also be stripped. “The original building was sans film, and had a cooler look. The film underneath the curtain wall had a bluish tint. After removing that film, the building will look more silvery and more transparent,” said Steven Pressler of Skanska.
Transparency—both literal and figurative—has always been an issue at the U.N. Surfing through U.N.-related chat on the web reveals the persistent view that the U.N. belongs to the “why pay less” school. Yet Adlerstein notes that by emptying each building before renovation, the project cut two years off of construction and saved $100 million, which will cover swing space rent in Manhattan and Queens. Additional savings come from the U.N.’s exemption from sales tax. Contrary to Mr. Trump’s belief, the project, he stressed, “was never a runaway train. It was a stalled train. The concern was that it wasn’t moving fast enough.”
But not so fast as to outrun auditors, Adlerstein explained, noting that value-engineering is still in progress. “We are being audited by several different groups at all times… Each member state is entitled to audit us and several do,” he said. “We have eternal audits.” With luck, though, diplomacy will carry the day.