New Headquarters at U.N. Designed to Withstand Terrorism
By Colum Lynch, Washington Post Staff Writer, August 30, 2004
UNITED NATIONS — For more than 40 years, it has been the workplace of America’s most famous ambassadors, including George H.W. Bush and Madeleine K. Albright. It has also served as a key staging ground for some of the country’s most important diplomatic initiatives, including U.S. efforts to sell the world on its invasion of Iraq and to defuse a potential nuclear war with the Soviets during the Cuban missile crisis.
But the headquarters of the U.S. Mission to the United Nations doesn’t generate much respect among the world’s diplomatic set, whose members have derided the gray 12-story structure as an architectural eyesore that is unfit to house the world’s lone superpower.
“It’s ugly,” said Germany’s U.N. ambassador, Gunter Pleuger. “And inside it’s not very modern. I think the United States delegation deserves a better one.”
The United States is set to get an upgrade. Construction workers will demolish the building on 45th Street and First Avenue over the next four months to make way for a heavily reinforced, 23-story high-rise that is designed to accommodate nearly twice the staff and survive a car bomb explosion.
The $4.4 million demolition has forced more than 160 American diplomats and support staff into a commercial building several blocks from U.N. headquarters, on 45th Street near Lexington Avenue, until the new building is completed in 2008.
The passing of the storied building, whose concrete, honeycombed facade once stirred fans of Modernist architecture, has generated little protest from the city’s preservationists. Even former occupants are glad to see it go.
“It’s lived its life,” former U.S. ambassador John D. Negroponte said in a formal ceremony convened to shutter the old building. “It’s kind of worn out.”
“I’ve been in it once,” said his successor, John C. Danforth. “When I see it in passing, my heart does not skip a beat.”
Another senior U.S. diplomat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, put it more bluntly: “They should have blown up the architect.”
The building, which opened its doors in the spring of 1961, was not always so despised. For a country that had been ambivalent about the United Nations, the decision to erect a permanent mission across the street from U.N. headquarters was seen as a symbol of America’s commitment to working with others to pursue peace. A New York Times editorial in March 1956 hailed U.S. plans to build “our own U.N. monument” as a powerful rebuke to “a few antediluvian isolationists in Congress who would like to have us pull out of this often annoying company and go it alone.”
The effort faced bureaucratic, financial and political hurdles from the beginning, when American officials began looking for a site in 1947. The late U.S. ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. overcame the forces of Washington bureaucracy and American isolationism to make it happen, invoking fears that the Soviets were considering purchasing the site for their own mission. That, he warned, would constitute a “diplomatic Sputnik for them,” a reference to the first man-made craft sent into space.
During Lodge’s tenure, Congress appropriated about $3.7 million in March 1958 to begin construction. But President Dwight D. Eisenhower, whose golden bust is displayed in the main conference room at the mission’s transitional headquarters, vetoed the bill because of an unrelated dispute over civil servants’ retirement funds. The bill was ultimately signed into law months later.
Inspired by Swiss architect Le Corbusier, who helped design the U.N. headquarters, the firms Kahn & Jacobs and Kelly & Gruzen conceived the building in the Brutalist style, a form of architecture popular in the 1960s and 1970s that relied on sculpted, rough concrete surfaces.
“It was an expression by the U.S. government that we were to be associated with the same kind of modern values that shaped the creation of the United Nations,” said Matt Postal, who once led walking tours of Modernist architectural buildings in Manhattan. Postal said that the building has since fallen on hard times. Its concrete facade is cracked and in need of a scrub. Inside, the mission is cramped and cluttered. The wiring is too old to accommodate modern electrical, security and computer networks, U.S. officials said.
Like its predecessor, the new building has taken more than a decade to finance and has faced intense resistance from the United Nations’ toughest critics. Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) pledged in 1998 to fight it, saying, “I intend to do all I can to make sure that hardworking Americans don’t pay for a State Department palace in New York.”
The building’s shell, which will be constructed by the General Services Administration, will cost $50 million to $60 million. The State Department will pay more than $12 million for renting the two spaces. To save money, the government scrapped plans for a permanent residence for the ambassador.
U.S. officials declined to discuss the cost or the practical impact the move will have on U.S. intelligence agencies that have long used the United Nations as a prime post for listening in on foreign diplomats.
The mission’s transition to temporary quarters, meanwhile, has irritated some diplomats, who complained they have been squeezed into smaller cubicles while the mission’s top three ambassadors have been given equal space. Still, many diplomats are grateful to flee a building that provided an inviting target for car bombers. Indeed, the design for the new mission has been influenced as much by terrorists as by the aesthetics of architecture or the principles of international cooperation.
The new building will be set back from the street, and the first six floors will be windowless, in an effort to prevent injury from exploding glass from a car bomb. Former New York Times architectural critic Herbert Muschamp described the new mission as a “high-rise bomb shelter.”
“The form and material gesture diplomatically toward friendship and transparency,” he wrote. “Otherwise this is black helicopter stuff: a crisp but hulking tower of power.”
© 2004 The Washington Post Company