Rem Koolhaas has been thinking about the United Nations since his early Delirious New York days. Earlier this century, he even made a bid to design a new Secretariat. While that project didn’t pan out, the Dutch architect is joining a team of countrymen and women to “reconceive” the North Delegates Lounge in the Conference Building. In addition to OMA, the team will include designer Hella Jongerius, graphic designer Irma Boom, artist Gabriel Lester, and “theorist Louise Schouwenberg.” Occupied since 1952, the original space is sandwiched between the Secretariat and General Assembly; it is a magisterial double-height room hundreds of feet long with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the East River. A swank bar at one end was replaced in 1978 with a mezzanine and smaller bar that will be removed to take advantage, once again, of the room’s corner views. Keenly aware of the complex’s complex identity and Le Corbusier’s grab for design credit, Koolhaas who once wrote that the U.N. was a building that “an American could never have thought and a European could never have built” has described the team’s approach as the “preservation of change.” The renovation will include handmade bead curtains, new carpets, a combination of original Knoll club and Eames lounge chairs with new furnishings, and a new installation for artworks donated by member states. The fate of a 300-foot tapestry of the Great Wall of China (50,000 yards of wool; 600 pounds) that once hung in the lounge and was donated during the ping-pong détente of the 70s was not mentioned in the press release. The project sponsored by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs is scheduled for completion in 2012.
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One might think that the $1.9 billion overhaul of the United Nations Headquarters would be a multiple-stakeholder quagmire of Ground Zero proportions. However, as Michael Adlerstein, executive director of the U.N. Capital Master Plan, put it in a fascinating April 27 presentation, the consensus-based organization actually made it easier to push major decisions through, since the “joint stepping on of many toes” allowed various U.N. members to at least feel that they were being inconvenienced equally. And to alleviate the hefty price tag, the long-overdue renovations will be an object lesson in historical reuse, with 50 percent of interior fixtures and 95 percent of non-window exterior elements being refurbished. First to be renovated is the Secretariat, which according to project curtain-wall consultant Robert Heintges was the first true curtain-wall tower in the U.S. Because the weight of the originally-specified insulating glass was too much for the sash mechanism of the double-hung windows within the unitized wall system, it had to be substituted with monolithic glass of such low performance that a reflective film was soon necessary, destroying the intended effect of transparency. Heintges’ new wall will restore this transparency, and to give the glass a historically accurate, monolithic appearance, a simple gray substrate is used instead of a double-skin facade. Because the new wall is also pressure-equalized and insulated, its performance will be boosted significantly. Although the old curtain wall had to be almost completely replaced, the other quintessentially modern materials in the building (besides asbestos) will be restored: Vermont white marble, checkered terrazzo, brushed stainless steel, Naugahyde, and Formica. The original typical floor plan, with toilets perversely placed in the middle of the long west facade, blocking circulation and hogging the best views, will be adjusted to create a circulation loop around the core. To ensure that daylight is not blocked by walled private offices, open-plan workstations fill most of the area along the windows, with zones of walled offices placed at wide intervals. The other major interior adjustment described by John Gering, managing partner in charge for HLW International, involves punching holes in the robust structural beams to run mechanical, plumbing, and data services through, thus allowing a substantially higher ceiling and making room for a (previously missing) sprinkler system. The presentation, organized by the Skyscraper Museum in partnership with the Architectural League and DOCOMOMO-New York/Tristate, covered other performance upgrades, as outlined by mechanical engineer Keith Fitzpatrick of Syska Hennessy Group. These include the use of CO2 sensors to control fresh air intake, rainwater harvesting, and other features that will reduce water and energy use by over 30 percent. According to the U.N. master plan, all renovations are scheduled to be completed by 2013. In the meantime, staff have been moved to 1 million square feet of rented space in 10 separate buildings nearby, with the most important people and functions being relocated to a temporary structure on the North Lawn. When all is said and done, the oldest modern skyscraper in New York will also be one of the best-performing—proof that time can often redeem techno-utopianism’s heady ambitions.
A sublime piece of modern architecture, the United Nations Headquarters is a time capsule that preserves almost intact the spirit of the 1950s. From the head sets to the tapestries, which hide the most breathtaking views of Brooklyn and the East River, everything has the air of an early James Bond movie. On May 13th, however, the UN was looking forward to pressing environmental challenges and their urban solutions, as the host of the second part of the "Conference on Sustainable Urbanization in the Information Age," entitled “The Role of Infrastructure in Metropolitan Development.” Speakers from places and realities as diverse as Mexico, Estonia, Spain, Australia, Kenya, and the UK agreed that urban living is the greenest way to live. “Living well is the only sustainability,” concluded New York’s own Rick Bell, Executive Director of the AIA NY chapter, and that seemed to be the motto throughout the sessions. With the world urban population growing at an incredible pace (I was shocked to discover that my home country of Uruguay leads the world ranking with 91 percent of its population living in urban areas) speakers called for responsible planning, emphasizing the usual topics of density, public transport, affordable housing, and sanitation. What was a surprise, though, was the acknowledgment by many officials that governmental and sub governmental systems were inefficient and over regulated, impeding the implementation of better policies. Conflicts of governance and large bureaucracies, along with poor civic engagement and lack of private and public partnerships make it difficult for all these “good intentions” to be put to practice. When our planet is in peril, it is no surprise that major attention should be taken to cities, after all “urban centers are the ticking hearts of civilization,” to use words of Sarbuland Khan, of the Global Alliance for Information and Communication Technologies. Also cities are the epicenter of the catastrophic global economic crisis in which we are living, but nevertheless, it is important not to compromise sustainable practices for the sake of reactivating the economy. The US government’s promises to end the economic slump come in the form of a stimulus package for infrastructure, but the kind of infrastructure we plan will determine the way we live and use the cities of the future, so we must chose responsibly. Keynote speaker Under Secretary-General Dr. Anna Kajumulo Tibaijuka plead to consider this as an opportunity to instill principles of sustainability into infrastructure development: “The challenge is to integrate economic environmental and social policies to make our cities economically more competitive, ecologically more sustainable and socially more inclusive and gender responsive. It is important to recognize success factors and remove barriers to their replication… we need local action if we are going to achieve global goals.” It is high time we put aside political interests and start acknowledging that these challenges are not part of some dystopian future, but are right around the corner. Let’s just hope those with the power to make these decisions do so wisely.