Mairi Beautyman | November 26, 2013
Kings, queens, presidents, and prime ministers passed through every day. Yet the roof was leaking, and the paint was flaking. Due to a unique exemption from local law, fire-safety violations were rife as well. Yes, it’s been more than 60 years since Harrison & Abramovitz, Oscar Niemeyer, Le Corbusier, and others completed the United Nations in New York. When the headquarters was finished in 1952, the fledgling organization had 58 member states—today it’s 193. An ambitious renovation is now under way, its $1.9 billion price tag funded entirely by donations from members.
To overhaul the North Delegates’ Lounge, at 6,800 square feet one of the largest meeting spaces in the Conference Building, Jongeriuslab headed up a team from the Netherlands. This veritable who’s who of established players and up-and-comers comprised the Office for Metropolitan Architecture, the graphic designer Irma Boom, the design theorist Louise Schouwenberg, and the artist Gabriel Lester, all personally chosen by Hella Jongerius. “It’s not just politically but also culturally a very important building. We were really aiming to keep the spirit of the time it was built,” Jongerius says. “What made our task difficult was that the Dutch government was requesting a showcase for Dutch design, while the U.N.’s priorities were safety and practicality. The whole space needed to be visually scannable in a second. There couldn’t be a piece of furniture someone could hide behind.”
Among the architectural alterations, the most notable was OMA’s removal of a 1970’s mezzanine and the columns supporting it. “With a clearer view to the East River, the space reclaims its original character,” Jongerius says. OMA also designed the substantial white resin reception desk and, alongside, what must be the world’s most subtle media wall, used to display news and meeting agendas. When the e-paper screens are blank, they blend right into the surrounding plane’s gray-painted grid pattern.
The task of determining the renovation’s color palette fell to the theorist, Schouwenberg, who conducted archival research and provided the results to Jongerius. “Dag Hammarskjöld, secretary general in the 1950’s, introduced a lot of Scandinavian design as well as a green, blue, and reddish-brown scheme, so I created textiles in those colors,” Jongerius says. Setting a neutral backdrop for the 15 shades of green and blue upholstery on the chairs and sofas are reddish-brown carpet and sandblasted aluminum wall panels.
Gerrit Rietveld’s jaunty lounge chairs, which were introduced in 1935 and had to be scaled up 10 percent to fit the bodies of today, sport wool in kelly green or seafoam, while variants from turquoise to periwinkle cover the seats of rolling armchairs. After Jongerius custom-designed them for this project, the response was so strong that they have now gone into production. The same goes for the computer desks lined up against the back wall, their monitors shielded by space-age frosted-acrylic bubbles.
Jongerius paired the computer desks with white leather-covered chairs by Jean Prouvé. No, not absolutely everything in the lounge is by Dutch designers—this is the U.N., after all. Prouvé’s chairs also flank lime-green café tables by Atelier Van Lieshout. Hans Wegner’s spindle-back armchairs and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona chair were existing, the latter simply re-covered in brown leather.
Integrating existing artwork was especially important. Diplomacy prevented any swapping-out of the four enormous pieces, since they were gifts from member countries: a tapestry depicting the Great Wall of China, another one, called Ode to Man, from Romania, a Persian rug from Iran, and an abstracted painting of the Andes from Colombia. So Lester, as the artist on the team, proposed re-inventing them via the method of installation. One might wonder what could be done differently with something of that scale. His answer was to mount them in identical aluminum frames that float several inches from the aluminum paneling.
With wall-mounted art predetermined and sculpture forbidden—another security risk—Jongerius turned to curtains for more artistry. “The main question was how to make a curtain that you couldn’t see through from the outside but kept views visible from the inside,” she notes. Perhaps best known for textiles that incorporate handmade elements, she draped the longer of the lounge’s two window walls in a curtain inspired by traditional Dutch fishing nets: Strands of white cotton are strung with 30,000 porcelain beads. “The top has fewer beads, so it’s more open,” she explains. Toward the bottom, the denser beads offer privacy to anyone seated.
For the second window wall, the graphic designer, Boom, created a pale blue open-weave textile. Its vertical lines evoke the Manhattan skyline in the same way that Jongerius’s Polder sofa conjures the flat landscape of the Low Countries.