Click on photos to enlarge.

Friday, February 8, 2013

The United Nations Complex

Two architects complementing one another.
Some wit once noted that the elephant appeared to be an animal "designed by committee." In architecture such committees are often a recipe for disaster. At best, the results, while perhaps being functional, range from bland to the downright ugly. In Washington, D.C., for example, starting with the Pentagon and moving either up or down the Potomac from there, such architectural planning committee endeavors are disturbingly common. The other alternative is to conduct a design competition when some important public building is needed. The results are usually more satisfying though the committee deliberations in selecting the winning design can often delay the project for years.
Expensive real estate.
In the early years following the founding of the United Nations in 1945, the need for world headquarters was obvious and pressing. And inasmuch as the United Nations was, in essence, a giant committee to end all giant committees, the choice to go the committee route and choose a giant committee of international architects to design such a structure was likewise obvious. Simply deciding where to build such an important committee meeting place was, thankfully, not consigned to a committee. With most of the rest of the world still licking its wounds from the war which gave birth to the U.N., the United States was the obvious choice, though even at that, proposed sites ranged from North Dakota to an island in the middle of the Niagara River (technically in Canada). A committee of one, John D. Rockefeller Jr., voted to put it in New York on a eighteen-acre site along the East River. Of course, money talks, and $8.5 million in the late 1940s spoke volumes as the philanthropic oil heir bought the plot and then donated it to the city of New York.

The stars of the committee, Harrison, Le Corbusier,
and Niemeyer (in back) with an early U.N. model
The design committee, headed by American architect, Wallace K. Harrison, nearly rivaled the U.N. itself in size. Its ten members came together from all over the world to evaluate more than fifty design proposals. However, in any committee of equals, some equals are more equal than others. In this committee, two world-class figures dominated, Oscar Niemeyer of Brazil, and the iconic French architect dubbed (by himself) Le Corbusier. As the process of design elimination evolved, it became obvious the U.N. headquarters would not be one building but a complex of three--the general assembly meeting hall, some sort of high-rise office tower (this was New York City real estate, after all) and a kind of "everything else" meeting hall for smaller committees such as the U.N. Security Council.
The East River side presents the most comprehensive view of the three-unit
complex despite the competing New York skyline clutter.
The General Assembly Dome
Eighteen acres in mid-town Manhattan was a lot of ground to cover, and the committee wisely left about half of it uncovered. Le Corbusier provided the inspiration, Niemeyer the details, moderating the French mastermind's more extravagant visions (such as scrapping a second, east-west oriented high-rise in favor of a broad, fairly nondescript edifice along the East River side of the property, above). The Secretariat tower is pure Le Corbusier, the first International Style high-rise built in New York City. The General Assembly is an example of "early Niemeyer" with its sweeping curve, modest dome, and strikingly modern interior (right). Both structures combine to complement one another, Niemeyer's sweeping curves softening the cold, hard impact of Le Corbusier's 39-story glass and stone slab, which raised eyebrows, even a modest storm of protest among New York art critics at the time. Nevertheless, both buildings have been highly influential since their completion in 1952.

United Nations Building from the East River, Johann Berthelsen,
art and architecture meet again. 
With all due respect to the ungainly pachyderm, committees do succeed, perhaps more often than not, though perhaps less often where architecture is concerned. New York's United Nation Headquarters succeeded because it was designed not so much by a committee but a two-man collaboration supervised by a committee. At the time, Le Corbusier was the star of the show. Niemeyer's star was on the rise, bursting upon the world stage in the 1960s amid the Brazilian highlands with his one-man show in designing his country's new capital, Brasilia (below). Along with the Empire State Building, Rockefeller Center, the Statue of Liberty, and now the new World Trade Center Tower, the U.N. complex is part of the face of New York City.
Oscar Niemeyer's Brasilia

No comments:

Post a Comment