United Nations: In a World of Its Own ; in the Forties, the UN Building's Bold Modernism Embodied the Ideals of a New Global Order. Unchanged since Then, Visitors Flock to See It, but, Says David Usborne, for Those Who Work Inside, It's No Utopia. Photographs by Adam Bartos

Article excerpt

Institutional. Try to identify the one overriding quality that pervades all the windowless corridors, soaring foyers and shabby offices that make up the headquarters of the United Nations in New York, and that is it. No other adjective will do. The place reeks of institution. The word is even more apt than you think. I asked other correspondents assigned here what it most reminded them of - a lunatic asylum, most of them said.

The decor doesn't help: miles of empty walls in putrid yellows and greens, linoleum everywhere or faux-marble floors smelling of polish. And then there are the people. Some have just been here too long. You wonder if there is a secret dormitory in the basement that they all file down to after dark. The third floor is where we all are, the journalists. And some of us, it must be said, are the maddest of the lot.

The architecture is at fault too. There isn't a cosy corner in the whole complex (although the tiny BBC booth overlooking the Security Council offers a kind of seclusion). Designed in the late Forties (the cornerstone was laid in 1949) by a collective of prominent architects which included Le Corbusier and America's Wallace Harrison, it was meant to impress, not soothe.

But as an icon of post-war architecture and design it can surely still delight. Almost nothing has changed in the building since the first day it opened for business. Enter the place and you are in a time warp - is it an abandoned set from one of those Sixties tele- vision shows, The Man From Uncle or The Saint? No attempt to modernise the lines of the building has been made. There has been no tarting up of the interiors to acknowledge the passage of time. Most of the furniture is original too.

But the UN is bankrupt. Paint is about all it can afford. Look carefully and you'll see that the grand headquarters, with its 39- storey tower over the East River, is falling to pieces. The ceiling leaks in the General Assembly Hall. There is asbestos everywhere. It doesn't even have a sprinkler system. To fix everything would cost about $800m, which the UN just hasn't got.

Concrete plans

Just over five decades ago, all of the land that the complex is built on was a seething cauldron of slaughterhouses and meat- packing factories. …