On Wednesday, January 27, New York Loeb fellows were treated to a fascinating two-hour tour of the renovated United Nations buildings by Michael Adlerstein (LF ’86), who recently stepped down as assistant secretary general and executive director of the now-completed eight-year, $2.15 billion renovation. Adlerstein’s love of the architecture and the institution was apparent throughout the tour, as he peppered his remarks on what had been restored with tales of his own interactions with UN leadership–he called it a remarkably unbureaucratic organization in comparison to his previous experience with the National Park Service–and anecdotes from the UN’s original design process.
Standing in the UN’s five-story foyer, for example, Adlerstein pointed to the ceiling, where one could see exposed beams and ducts painted a uniform blue, one of a number of industrial elements in the ceremonial space that marked it as a different kind of institution. The gold-painted columns running between the panes of luminous glass are actually pipes, delivering heat to the bottom third of the space. Oscar Niemeyer, the Brazilian architect who was part of the 10-man international design team, put the columns on the inside because he knew the delegates would want some neo-classical grandeur, but he thought the exterior of the Assembly building should remain workmanlike.
All of this north-facing glass was translucent in the original design, because the architects wanted the lobby to be a space of introspection. “When the glass was gone for the restoration, it was so beautiful with the skyline, the Secretary General asked if we could leave it open,” Adlerstein said. The answer was no, and the new blast-proof thermal glass mimics the pattern of the original. The striped frits on the glass get smaller as the windows reach the ceiling, which heighten the scale of the space. One of the restoration’s goals was to increase energy efficiency of the complex by 50 percent with better insulation, better sealants, and some photovoltaics. Upon completion in 2015, the renovated building was awarded LEED Gold status.
Adlerstein noted that the UN now meets New York’s building code for the first time since it opened. That has meant that certain elements of the original design are now off-limits to the public, including the switchback ramp in the foyer, whose slope does not meet current safety regulations. The renovation removed asbestos, which had been used as insulation as well as a finish material throughout the buildings, and added sprinklers.
One Fellow asked whether the sculpture hung in front of the window wall, which looked like Sputnik, was intended to refer to that satellite. “It is Sputnik!” Adlerstein said–the backup, had the original not worked as the Russian space program intended. The Soviet Union gave it to the United Nations, one of hundreds of striking artworks hung throughout the complex and identified by brass plaques. Notice a particularly beautiful piece of stained glass and it might be by Marc Chagall.
In the General Assembly Hall, 70 years of nicotine stains were cleaned from the walls– two large Fernand Leger murals nicknamed “ham and eggs” and “rabbit in hat” were protected during the process–and furniture was reupholstered in the original Naugahyde, considered “a magical material in the 1950s.” Laminate desktops in delicate colors were replaced, and their wood frames refinished. They are now high enough to accommodate wheelchairs. Ashtrays were eliminated and electronics added to each nation’s desk; it used to take a team of ten to put all the nameplates in order. The original mossy carpeting was matched, with the addition of white stripes to mark the edge of the steps. The floor was also taken up to install air conditioning below.
One change the renovation made was to connect a lower balcony to the main floor of the hall, adding 25 to 30 new seats. Since it opened in 1952, the United Nations has grown to 193 member states, while original planning was for 70 to 80, according to Adlerstein. Now all existing members can have desks of their own, and there is room for a handful of new nations.
Most impressive of all was the newly cleaned dome, where exposed lighting and ductwork were visible, illuminating the gold-leafed backdrop behind the podium. The gold-edged wood battens on either side were individually stripped and cleaned.
In the Security Council Chamber, originally a gift from Norway designed by architect Arnstein Arneberg, Adlerstein pointed out more Naughyde – pale blue for ambassadors and their aides, red for everyone else. This room was completely gutted, its furniture reupholstered and its finishes reconstructed, with new heating and air-conditioning installed under the floor. The striking gold-and-blue damask textile, used on the walls and curtains and designed by Else Poulsson, was remade in Norway. A fragment of the original is now part of the collection of Cooper Hewitt, National Design Museum, given by the Royal Norwegian Consulate General.
Now that the complex looks as fresh as it did in 1952, there are new rules: no smoking and, in rooms like the freshly-redone Security Council Quiet Room, no coffee. That room, a gift of the German delegation, has walls upholstered to look like the Black Forest, with everything else in shades of maize and gray.
In all, the renovation strikes a balance between faithful recovery of the original mid-20th century design and accommodation of 21st century needs for safety, security, and energy efficiency.
For more details on the restoration, look at the recent book “The United Nations at 70: Restoration and Renewal,” co-authored by Carter Wiseman (LF ’85).