Modernizing Modernism: UN Headquarters for the 21st Century

Event: Lunch at the United Nations Headquarters
Location: United Nations Headquarters, 12.08.09
Speakers: John Hanna, Jr. — Chair, Archives Partnership Trust; Ramu Damodaran — Deputy Director, UN Outreach Division; Stephen Schlesinger — Historian & Author; John Clarkson — Deputy to the Executive Director, Capital Master Plan; David Fixler, FAIA — Principal, EYP Architecture & Engineering


United Nations Headquarters.

Einhorn Yaffee Prescott Architecture & Engineering

The headquarters of the United Nations is a prime example of Modernism with a capital M. However, time has taken its toll on the early 1950s complex that bears the signatures of internationally renowned architects including Le Corbusier and Oscar Niemeyer. Recently, leaders from the Archives Partnership Trust, the UN Outreach Division and Capital Master Plan team, along with designers from EYP Architecture & Engineering, gathered to discuss the progress of the revitalization of the buildings for 21st-century use.

Ramu Damodaran, deputy director of the UN Outreach Division, is often asked why it’s taking so long to complete the renovations. “The Lord had the great advantage of working alone,” he replies, referring to the multitude of committees and teams involved in the planning process. The design team alone includes EYP with Helpern Architects, HLW, R.A. Heintges & Associates, and Syska & Hennessy Group. However, the process is moving forward in earnest, with an ambitious projected completion date at the end of 2013 on a budget just under $2 million.

Although the original complex included six buildings with around 2.7 million square feet of space, the UN has experienced vast growth in the past 60 years. While there were initially 70 member states, now there are 192. When the complex was constructed, only 1,500 meetings were held per year, but now it struggles to accommodate 5,800. Space planning is a major issue. Instead of new expansions, subtle tweaks will make room for modern technologies and result in uncluttered, open space, which the designers hope will foster teamwork.

Mainly, the renovation project involves infrastructure upgrades. The UN lacks modern security devices, and, according to John Clarkson, deputy to the executive director of the Capital Master Plan, the “level of risk is unacceptable.” The buildings are in dire need of upgrades to fire alarm systems and sprinklers as well as inefficient heating and cooling systems. Roof leaks, fire separation issues, and asbestos must also be addressed to comply with the NYC Building Code.

David Fixler, FAIA, a principal of EYP, stated that the design team’s primary goal is to “preserve and enhance the symbol and history” of the complex. Guided by a collective “moral consciousness,” the team faces the challenge of integrating modern technologies within the original design. The preservation of industrial products is also important, including lighting and diffusers. Audio components necessary to translate speeches into many languages are integrated directly into new stations for delegates to minimize unsightly wiring. Instead of using surface-mounted plasma screens, the designers specified built-in electronic signs that will blend better with the architecture, and the font from the original signage throughout the UN is being replicated.

Fixler realizes that it is impossible to exactly preserve some spaces, and the team has established a language for necessary interventions such as ADA ramps. The designers also carved new conference rooms out of a basement.

Sustainability has been a major driver in design decisions; the team is aiming for a LEED Silver equivalent. The curtain wall of the Secretariat building is being restored to its original clear glazing in place of the current blue-tinted Mylar film, the result of an earlier renovation. The new double-glazed skin will help cut heating and cooling costs. While not currently in the scope, sustainable strategies such as recycling rainwater and installation of renewable energy sources are being considered for the future, which is only appropriate for a 21st-century global institution.