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An interior view of the General Assembly at UN headquarters in New York.
An interior view of the General Assembly at UN headquarters in New York.

Architecture

At the United Nations, updating a modernist icon Add to ...

At the tall iron gates of the United Nations Headquarters in New York, Marian Miszkiel, a Canadian engineer who has previously rebuilt bombed-out buildings in Kosovo, hands me a hard hat and leads me through security and toward the entrance of the General Assembly building. We haul open the heavy silver and nickel front doors, designed by the formidable Canadian modernist Ernest Cormier, into an airy lobby with balconies curved like massive white bones. Boomerang-shaped, the five-storey Assembly is a marvel of mid-century design, a mostly unsung hero of 1950s architecture conceived during that fragile postwar era by a prestigious board of design consultants nominated by member governments, including the legendary architects Oscar Niemeyer and Le Corbusier, the project’s chief architect, Wallace K. Harrison, and Cormier.

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Now, as part of a $1.87-billion refurbishment of the 17-acre campus along Manhattan’s East River, the General Assembly will be stripped back to its concrete walls, upgraded to 21st-century standards of safety, security and accessibility, and then reassembled according to preservation standards. The ultimate goal is to make the intense renovations look invisible. As Miszkiel says, “The idea is to return the lustre to the jewel.”

Miszkiel is the senior engineer on the United Nations capital master-plan team. Like many of the folks at the UN, he has lived and worked around the world. (His architect sister, Barb Miszkiel, is a principal at Stantec Architecture in Toronto.) After surviving a jump in 1982 from a Chinook helicopter when his parachute failed to open, leaving the muscles in his legs partly paralyzed, Miszkiel served as a Canadian Forces officer and engineer in five UN mission areas, working with the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force in the Golan Heights in Israel, helping to rebuild the cruise-missile-destroyed Bank of Kosovo and putting in new roads and infrastructure in Sudan. “Some days,” he says, leading me into the concrete shell of a dimly lit space that once held the Security Council, relocated to a temporary space in the General Assembly, “this is a normal job with massive technical challenges, but there are other times when the Security Council had to try to resolve some very serious issues in Egypt and Libya, and we had to stop the jackhammers so they could finish their business.”

Strangely, the UN Headquarters in New York has never managed to attract the kind of attention that it deserves as a masterwork of modernism. To be sure, its presence means estimated billions in jobs and local investment in Manhattan. But New Yorkers are ambivalent about the idea of world government that messes with their abilities to govern as a superpower.

Still, there is a rare determination in the profile that the UN cuts along the East River. Seen from the north, the centrepiece, the 39-storey Secretariat glass-slab skyscraper, was the first modern skyscraper to be constructed in New York. After stormy debates between the consulting architects, the Secretariat was completed in 1951, with a green-blue face of glass looking boldly onto the East River, exactly the way the skyscraper-hungry French architect Le Corbusier wanted it. The General Assembly plenary hall is a sumptuous composition of angled wood walls, blue vinyl seating and dazzling murals of curvy-brain shapes by Fernand Léger. You can tell that Brazilian architect Niemeyer weighed in with his legendary moves in organic form.

The renovation of the UN is a vast project, beginning, as it would with any building 60 years old, with the removal of asbestos. It’s also easy to spot the mildew on the front lobby walls, and a blue tarpaulin has been stuffed inside the dome in the magnificent General Assembly to stop the water from dripping onto the heads of delegates below. Remarkably, the monumental Léger paintings still float on either side of the Assembly hall, while the telephones and interpreting equipment next to the individual vinyl seats look to be 30 years old. Though old equipment and wiring will be replaced with digital upgrades and every element in the room will be cleaned and repaired, its original 1950s aesthetic will thankfully be honoured under the heritage-preservation supervision of the architecture firm Einhorn Yaffee Prescott.

There’s already plenty of evidence that the UN’s planners and design consultants are on the right track. The Secretariat’s glass curtain walls, originally conceived in 1947 with operable windows, was a daring experiment, and many of its galvanized metal anchors have been seriously in danger of failing. (Le Corbusier had pushed hard for the building to be raised up on stilts, or pilotis, and for metal brise soleils to block the sun on the east and west flanks of the building, but both ideas were rejected by his teammates as being inappropriate for a winter city.) The 5,000-pane window system has been entirely replaced with multilayered laminated glass that provides plenty of flex and resistance to shattering in the case of a blast. The original blue-green colour has also been returned to the skyscraper, so that the Secretariat building boasts the same sea-green profile as the media darling, Lever House, another recently renovated icon of 1950s modernism that now sparkles on Park Avenue.

“We’re cutting the energy and water used within the General Assembly and throughout the complex by 50 per cent,” says Michael Adlerstein, assistant secretary-general and executive director of the Capital Master Plan, when we met last Friday. But, “in terms of preservation, it’s going to feel like the 1950s, from the fonts to the carpet.” The Secretariat tower will reopen in July. The conference centre, which extends directly over the FDR Drive expressway next to the East River, will be open by December. The General Assembly is scheduled for completion by 2014.

For years, even decades, the UN Headquarters has suffered from benign neglect. The organization has long been underfunded. “Every time the UN got an extra dollar it was spent on its programs, not on its facilities. Then, every time the A/C stopped working, they’d start up talks again about the need to renovate,” explains Adlerstein. “After 9/11, everybody got nervous. And Mayor [Rudolph]Giuliani said to the UN, ‘You’re a firetrap.’ ”

Part of Miszkiel’s role is to ensure delivery of an integrated system of technology that includes a permanent broadcast-television facility and simultaneous interpretation systems. We tour deep into the complex where the existing studios resemble pits with vertical walls of snaking wires, then down to the tide level of the East River, where cooling systems are being upgraded to meet requirements of LEED Gold and cooling of computers and interior spaces will be facilitated by the pumping of cold river water.

“I love the buzz here at the United Nations. It’s a tremendous opportunity, though there aren’t as many Douglas firs as there are in B.C.,” says Miszkiel, who has temporarily relocated his family from Victoria to NYC. “I’ve seen things in the field that I wouldn’t want anybody to experience. I’ve realized now that I’m here that we’re serving the field. And you understand why Headquarters exists. It exists for everyone, not just a few.”

For more on New York and cities around the world, follow Lisa Rochon's blog, chasinghome.org.

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