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UN moves into 'Ikea' building

Diplomatic grumblings are becoming apparent as a stark New York building becomes the makeshift residence for global negotiations.
The UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, at the ceremony to inaugurate the new premises.
The UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, at the ceremony to inaugurate the new premises.

NEW YORK // Veteran staffers at UN headquarters have already chosen an affectionate nickname for the white steel building that has become the makeshift home to international diplomacy: Ikea. The UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, cut the ribbon on the Temporary North Lawn Building yesterday, a three-storey structure that looks more like an out-of-town furniture showroom than the official home of the world body.

It replaces the debating chambers found on the lower floors of the celebrated UN headquarters, a masterpiece of modernist architecture on the banks of the East River in midtown Manhattan that badly needs its first major renovation in six decades. As envoys negotiate their way around the new buildings, they are coming to terms with the reality of conducting the diplomatic arts in a windowless edifice of bare concrete floors, eye-straining lights and a colour-scheme of beige and white.

"It was the member states that approved the budget," said one long-term UN staffer, who wishes to remain anonymous, describing the building's price tag of US$140 million (Dh514m). "They voted for it, and this is what they got." The building is doubtless a less-appealing alternative to the 39-storey Secretariat block and adjoining chambers devised by Le Corbusier, Oscar Niemeyer and other design gurus that share the 6.9-hectare strip of international territory.

Nobody is sure how the building will be received when the US president Barack Obama and bigwigs from the UN's other 191 members turn up for their annual diplomatic marathon during the General Assembly summit in September. Lacking the elaborate mosaics, paintings and tapestries that decorate the walls of the UN's main buildings, the new structure is not nearly as stately as the White House, Kremlin or Casa Rosada, the pink presidential palace in Buenos Aires.

During the opening ceremony, Mr Ban acknowledged the new "no-frills" building would cause "disruptions and inconveniences". "There are no escalators. The windows are limited. We have simple concrete floors. No carpets," he added. One victim of the move can already be discerned: the white translation earpieces that are a symbol of UN diplomacy have been substituted with clunky headsets of a style more typically seen plugged into Walkmen players in the 1980s.

Diplomats permanently stationed here already lament the loss of the Delegates' Lounge, a riverside meeting spot and bar that represented one of the last places smokers could light up in a vehemently anti-tobacco city. Some question whether its closure for refurbishment last month will affect the level of diplomatic horse-trading at UN headquarters, where deals are struck over evening cocktails as frequently as they are in Security Council parleys.

Michael Adlerstein, the assistant secretary general in charge of refurbishment, insists the revamp is necessary because the decaying buildings are riddled with asbestos and suffer from leaky roofs and an unpleasant rodent infestation. The project has already seen 4,200 UN staff shifted to temporary offices in Manhattan and Long Island and, within months, the Secretariat skyscraper will empty completely for builders to tear out electrical wiring, rusty pipes and ventilation systems.

Employees already feel the inconvenience of moving, with Sir John Holmes, the undersecretary general for humanitarian affairs, repeatedly arriving late for press conferences and apologising for not "factoring in the additional walking time from Madison Avenue". Nobody is certain how much less effective this oft-maligned institution will become now that staff have been relocated and the popular diplomatic rendezvous haunts are closed, destroying the UN's campus-like atmosphere.

"It is going to be disruptive, no matter which way we were to do it," Mr Adlerstein said. "There will be some changes during the three-year course of the renovations of the Secretariat. We have not done a study, per se, but we are aware of some of the inconvenience and problems we are trying to address them." After renovations, headquarters will use 50 per cent less electricity and 40 per cent less fresh water, while the iconic blue-green glass curtain of the Secretariat block will house blast-proof material capable of withstanding a terrorist attack.

The cost of refurbishment - $1.88bn - reflects the fact that the buildings have hardly been modernised since they were built between 1950 and 1952, leaving a decaying edifice that was costing $25m each year to maintain. Once work has been completed, the UN will look pretty much the same as it does today - although offices will be modernised, the shell will remain intact and developers are under strict instructions to maintain the retro sci-fi appearance of the first four floors.

Until then, New York's diplomatic community will be counting the days until 2013, when business is due to return to normal and the Ikea-like structure on the North Lawn will be torn down, recycled, and become a piece of UN history. jreinl@thenational.ae

Published: January 12, 2010 04:00 AM

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