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Appropriately world-class


UNITED NATIONS -- It was a most unusual client for an unusual team of architects.

The client was the United Nations, and in 1947 it was still without a permanent home and wanting one that would serve as a "workshop for peace."

In designing the headquarters for the United Nations, which celebrates its 50th anniversary beginning today with a gathering of 100 world leaders, an international team of 10 architects would produce one of the most potent and enduring architectural icons since World War II.

It is the now familiar 17-acre complex overlooking the East River in Manhattan, one remarkably successful as a work of urban design. The architects managed to create a symbol of cooperation -- a cohesive group of buildings rather than a single, overpowering one.

"If you look at New York, you would look at Rockefeller Center and the United Nations as groups of buildings that hold up and have a cohesiveness that makes you feel that you are in a grand place," says Peg Breen, president of the New York Landmarks Conservancy.

"People often make light of anything done by a committee," says Samuel Koo, one of the U.N. officials responsible for the anniversary celebrations. "But the truth of the matter is that the United Nations headquarters was designed by a committee. And it has served the U.N. well, and served the city well."

Rockefeller's role

In the beginning, there was no guarantee that the headquarters would indeed be in New York City. The organization officially came into existence Oct. 24, 1945, and its first, temporary quarters were at Flushing Meadow, on Long Island.

Boston, Philadelphia and San Francisco competed with New York to become the organization's permanent home; and for a time, the United Nations considered a site in suburban Connecticut.

It was John D. Rockefeller Jr. who ensured that the contest would be won by New York.

When U.N. delegates became interested in a small site in Manhattan, Mr. Rockefeller purchased it for $8.5 million and donated it to the United Nations -- ending the search.

Trygve Lie, the organization's first secretary-general, proclaimed that the gift brought the United Nations "to the crossroads of the world at the turbulent center of Twentieth Century life."

In choosing an architect, no one wanted to repeat the experience of the old League of Nations: There had been a politicized design process that produced an overblown neoclassical palace in Geneva that cost far more than expected and took a decade to build.

This time, there would be a committee of 10 architects. Wallace Harrison, an American whose landmark Trylon and Perisphere became the symbols of the 1939 World's Fair in New York, was appointed director of the effort. But the figure who would emerge as the most influential was Charles-Edouard Jeanneret, better known as Le Corbusier -- who many consider the greatest architect of his time.

The wedge-shaped structure

It was Le Corbusier who suggested a wedge-shaped building to house the General Assembly, and it was Le Corbusier who suggested a glass and aluminum skyscraper to house the Secretariat.

When the final design was presented, Mr. Harrison described it in rather pragmatic terms. "The world hopes for a symbol of peace," he said. "We have given them a workshop for peace."

The Secretariat would be completed in 1950, to a design completed by Mr. Harrison. The Conference Building, containing the three council chambers, would open in 1951, and the low-slung General Assembly building, topped by a dome, in 1952. A library building would be added a decade later.

At first, the reaction was mixed.

Some architects saw the finished skyscraper as a "watered TC down" version of Corbusier's original vision. Others disliked the dome that had been added to the General Assembly at the suggestion of Sen. Warren Austin, the U.S. representative to the United Nations, who believed the dome was a traditional architectural element that would serve as a recognizable symbol for a new world capital.

'International style'

But whatever its shortcomings, the complex would have a widespread influence on architecture, especially in the United States.

While many architects and clients were just awakening to the so-called "international style" of design, the United Nations was the epitome of it. The headquarters complex emerged as "the architectural apotheosis of modern functionalism," says Peter Reed, curator of a recent exhibit on the U.N. headquarters at New York's Museum of Modern Art.

It adhered to no single national tradition but sought a more universal design -- one neither distinctly American, nor European, nor dependent on historical precedents.

The bold, prismatic form of the 39-story Secretariat, set against a backdrop of New York's prewar skyscrapers with their idiosyncratic setbacks and towers, was to be only the first of many glass-sheathed office buildings -- the dominant architecture of corporate culture after World War II.

'A symbol, from scratch'

"It brought modernism to the United States on the high road," says Robert A. M. Stern, a prominent architect and co-author of a book on post-war New York architecture. "It's one of the great civic complexes of the world.

"It's up there with Brazilia and the government center in New Delhi. They were the three times we had in this century to build a symbol of national and international government, from scratch."

Now, the headquarters complex is home base for 7,000 of the United Nations' 14,900-person worldwide staff. It also accommodates delegates from 185 member countries -- compared with the original 51.

Fortunately, the architects designed the main meeting rooms with enough space for a growing membership. "If you look at how the delegates are seated today," says Mr. Koo, the U.N. official, "you'd think this is how it was planned long ago."

Most of the organization's physical expansion has taken place elsewhere: There are two additional U.N. office buildings to the north, plus a separate headquarters building for the United Nations Children's Emergency Fund. Other U.N. agencies have their main offices in Geneva, Rome and Vienna.

So the headquarters complex itself has remained in the same configuration as when the buildings opened. While there has been some remodeling, most of the offices are still comfortable in a 1940s way -- sparse, not lavish.

Surprisingly, the complex has not been designated a landmark. But the U.N. staff keeps it in top condition. "If you get off the elevator on any floor, the linoleum is absolutely polished," says Mr. Reed of the Museum of Modern Art. "It's such a powerful piece of 1940s design -- and they take good care of it."

The headquarters is a product of an era when diplomats and architects shared big ideas -- and had the ability to carry them out.

"New York struggles more and more, as the world progresses and technology progresses, to stay at the center," says Ms. Breen, of the Landmarks Conservancy. In that context, the United Nations is crucial to the city, and perhaps to all cities, she said.

"It reminds people that New Yorkers once had bold visions, and we have to keep that legacy up."

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