Neutral Zone pix
Switzerland gives a gift of high design to the United Nations headquarters in New York
Fred A. Bernstein -- Interior Design, 5/1/2005 12:00:00 AM
Inlay, a Swiss design collaborative composed of :mlzd Architekten, Buchner Bründler Architekten, and artist twosome Relax, renovated the 2,500-square-foot GA-200 room at the United Nations in New York.
The space, used for photo ops, meetings, and as a prep area for speakers, is situated behind the General Assembly hall.
Bronze-finished pocket doors are set into the suite's walnut-veneered walls.
The word "peace," inscribed in the UN's six official languages, is inlaid in different materials; diamonds are used for English.
Inlay transcribed an excerpt of the preamble to the UN Charter on the other side of the General Assembly hall's canted gold-leafed wall.
White gold in walnut veneer is used for the Arabic "peace" inlay.
It's tradition for a country joining the United Nations to present the organization with an accession gift. Over the years, the offerings of 191 member nations—generally large objets d'art—have piled up like too many wedding presents on an over-taxed credenza. So when Switzerland joined the UN in 2002, its leaders were determined to come up with a gift that served a practical purpose. And if the famously neutral country could find a way to help broker disputes, so much the better.
Working with officials at UN headquarters in New York, the Swiss targeted the staging area behind the General Assembly hall called GA-200. The multifunctional space has offices for the Secretary General and the President of the General Assembly, work areas for UN staff, and is used for photo ops and as a prep area by world leaders before making speeches.
Designed in 1951 by a team led by architect Wallace K. Harrison, the 2,500-square-foot suite was no place for world leaders today. The room had become an embarrassment, its 1950's minimalism now dim, threadbare, and outdated.
Shortly after the UN accession, the Swiss government invited members of its country's design community to compete for the opportunity to renovate the boomerang-shape suite. The winner among the 58 applicants was Inlay, a three-prong team composed of :mlzd Architekten of Biel, Buchner Bründler Architekten of Basel, and Relax, a pair of Zurich-based artists.
In addition to creating a functional, modern, and aesthetically pleasing space, Inlay's concept features the word "peace" inlaid in GA-200's furniture, floor, and walls in the UN's six official languages: Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian, and Spanish. The 12 inlays, each no longer than an inch, are done in precious gems and materials, such as diamonds, white gold, and walnut.
More words can be found on the canted wall shared by GA-200 and the General Assembly hall. Rising up 75 feet to a round skylight, the General Assembly wall is covered in gold leaf. On the side of GA-200, Inlay painted the wall a serene celadon and transcribed an excerpt of the preamble to the UN Charter in the six official languages.
The extravagance of the inlays notwithstanding, the room's scheme is an exercise in subtlety. Bronze-finished aluminum doors open to a reception area fitted with gray wool carpet, polished-chrome structural columns, and a quartet of armchairs covered in chocolate-brown leather. The chairs represented one of Inlay's greatest challenges as they had to be regal enough for kings yet not grandiose, big enough for the heftiest world leaders yet not so large that the most diminutive would feel diminished. Some 10 chairs were considered and rejected before the model by Zurich-based Fluidum was accepted.
One criterion of the project was flexibility. Inlay concealed offices for the Secretary General and the President of the General Assembly behind walnut-veneered walls fitted with bronze-finished pocket doors that close at the touch of a button for total privacy. Additional walnut-veneered walls slide to divide the space into a series of smaller rooms, if necessary. Within the minimalist environment, the designers also had to find space for a multitude of equipment, including a 50-year-old voting system that was preserved and reinstalled.
Coordinating the $3 million project on the New York end was David Hotson Architect. Hotson became something of a diplomat himself, harmonizing Swiss and American crews, who, he says gingerly, have "very different attitudes toward construction."
Local contractors were responsible for structural work as well as all the concealed systems. Swiss builders created walls and cabinetry after sending over plywood templates to ensure proper fits. Construction, which took six months, was also tightly scheduled. "The Swiss realized that their reputation for punctuality and precision would be damaged if they missed the July deadline," Hotson recalls. "We had the official opening one day, and the very next, President Bush walked through on his way to deliver a speech to the General Assembly."
Whether Bush noticed the renovation is not known, but the project has succeeded on all fronts. Swiss design gets a boost, and world leaders have a more fitting environment in which to foster peace.