United Nations: Waiting for a Facelift

By Wapshott, Nicholas | New Statesman (1996), June 12, 2006 | Go to article overview

United Nations: Waiting for a Facelift


Wapshott, Nicholas, New Statesman (1996)


On his recent trip to America Tony Blair declared that after 60 years it was time to revamp the United Nations, which, like other world institutions, had lost sight of its guiding purposes. As anyone who has been there knows, those years have taken their toll not only on the standing of the UN, but on the bricks, mortar and fittings of its iconic home.

Refreshed over the years by little more than the occasional lick of paint, the slim structure of the Secretariat building, which served as such a glamorous landmark in Hitchcock's North by Northwest, has become a vertical slum. The carpets in its miles of corridors have shrunk and faded. The plaster on its sweeping walls has gone live and needs cutting out and replacing. Even the great chambers in which the General Assembly and the Security Council convene desperately need an overhaul.

Designed by a team including the heady combination of Le Corbusier, Oscar Niemeyer, Sven Markelius and Wallace K Harrison, the elegant tower, 39 storeys high and just 72 feet wide, was completed in 1952. For once, modernism set to a public purpose did not result in gargantuan brutality, but 60 years is a long time in the life of a working building.

Everyone there knows it. Even John Bolton, the US ambassador to the UN who once remarked that nothing much would be lost if the tower's top ten floors (containing Kofi Annan and his secretariat) were removed, concedes that the building is frustratingly archaic. The thousands of diplomats, bureaucrats and journalists who work there every day scarcely know where to begin: while the plumbing is furring up, the wiring is pre-computer. For others in America, however, the decay of the UN's fabric offers an opportunity to snipe and harry.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

New Yorkers aren't always happy with this cosmopolitan presence in their midst, some politicians begrudging that the 18-acre site is outside their jurisdiction and that UN diplomats often don't pay their parking fines and sometimes treat the city with contempt. …

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