Publisher's Note — October 21, 2011, 8:51 am

An Architect’s Optimism; The U.N.’s Pessimism

John R. MacArthur is publisher of Harper’s Magazine and author of the book You Can’t Be President: The Outrageous Barriers to Democracy in America. This column originally appeared in the Providence Journal on October 19, 2011.

As I left the United Nations General Assembly last month, having just heard Benjamin Netanyahu’s response to Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas’s plea for recognition of a Palestinian state, I noticed Elie Weisel, the Nobel laureate and death-camp survivor, surrounded by admirers.

The Romanian-born writer was lending his moral support to the Israeli prime minister in the middle of an audience of diplomats, U.N. staffers, and members of the public who had just shown themselves — with numerous ovations — to be largely pro-Palestinian, so I was curious to hear his reaction.

What, I asked Wiesel, had he thought of Abbas’s dramatic and defiant appeal for statehood? “I didn’t hear any of it,” he told me. “The earphones with the [simultaneous] translation didn’t work where I was sitting.”

Was this dialogue of the deaf symbolic evidence of the U.N.’s impotence, or was it merely an unfortunate technical malfunction caused by worn-out equipment? No doubt this non-functioning device had contributed to the lack of communication between the Arabic-speaking Abbas and certain Jews seated in the General Assembly’s balcony. The headquarters of the world body, on the East River, are undergoing a sorely needed five-year, $2 billion restoration and renovation, which eventually will include replacing the “ear cups” and aging copper wires connecting them that are now being eaten away by time and mice.

But the failure of translation in Wiesel’s General Assembly balcony seat is also a metaphor for the larger question of whether the U.N. needs to be spiritually and politically renovated — whether the very idea of world governance in the service of peace has any hope of succeeding in the twenty-first century. Appearances can be misleading, but I didn’t feel very optimistic after the Netanyahu-Abbas confrontation.

Such pessimism pains me. I love the idea behind the U.N. but I also love its physical embodiment, dubbed “”a workshop for peace” by Wallace K. Harrison, the Rockefeller family lead architect who managed the team of egotists that made of the U.N. a masterpiece of functional, modern design. The day I spoke with Wiesel, Harrison’s modernist jewel was looking pretty tarnished, its lack of luster most strikingly visible in a large stain — caused by rainwater — on the white wall that looms above the Visitors Lobby in the General Assembly building.

More pertinent to the theme of U.N. deterioration and weakness was the easily overlooked memorial, about 60 feet from where Wiesel and I were standing, to Count Folke Bernadotte, the U.N. mediator for Palestine assassinated in Jerusalem in 1948 by a militant Zionist group. Sixty-three years later the Israeli-Arab deadlock seems more intractable than ever. While Abbas’s application appeared doomed either to burial by committee or a U.S. veto in the Security Council, Netanyahu seemed utterly confident in his opposition to Palestinian aspirations, alternately mocking the U.N. (“a theater of the absurd”) and cynically stoking American fears of terrorist attack in perfect English. That his speech was rhetorically brilliant, that it contained significant truths mixed in with its many half-truths and conflations, did not make it any more inspiring to those who hope for a lasting settlement.

For optimism I had better luck last week when I spoke with Michael Adlerstein, the assistant secretary general responsible for the U.N.’s new makeover. Having toured the construction site in a hard hat and orange vest — walking through the gutted offices, common spaces, and council chambers, whose mostly Scandinavian designs I much admire — I wanted some reassurance that the old ideals and glamor of the U.N. would at least live on in its interior décor. Adlerstein the architect didn’t disappoint me:

“The portions of the compound that the public has seen for the past sixty years, that are remembered in the Cary Grant movie [North by Northwest] and are seen by the delegates, deserve full restoration. When they come back in 2014 they will find that all the character-defining features are the same, the fonts are the same — they’re all still stainless steel — the paneling is the same, the batons are the same. . . . The big feature, the glass curtain wall [facing the East River], will look exactly the way it did in 1952.” The Delegates Lounge, a wonderful place to drink and conduct interviews amidst a cacophony of foreign languages, “will still be this beautiful room with huge glass walls facing north and east and with huge tapestries on the walls.” New furniture and curtains are to be donated by the Dutch mission, although it remains to be seen whether the widely ignored smoking ban will finally be enforced.

All well and good, as is the plan to convert the thirty-nine-story Secretariat building from 80 percent private offices to 80 percent open work spaces, an environmentally logical redesign that will let copious natural light flow across the floors. The cantilevered portions of the Conference Building, which hold the Security Council Chamber and hang over FDR Drive, will be reinforced with blast-proof steel. However, sadly, because of post-9/11 (and post-bombing of the Baghdad U.N. mission) thinking that still prevails inside the U.N. hierarchy, there are no plans to reopen the outdoor gardens or the East River promenade to the general public.

Adlerstein wishes it were otherwise: He considers Oscar Niemeyer to be the “heart and soul of the architectural team” that originally designed the U.N., because the Brazilian not only had “the courage to take on Le Corbusier [main designer of the Secretariat] but also the skills to foresee . . . the growth of the General Assembly and the need to preserve the lungs, the North Lawn, of the U.N.” If “the terrible situation in the world where everyone has to hide” begins to change and “peace breaks out,” says Adlerstein, his team will be “providing all doors with doorknobs” (for doors that have been locked for years) to permit staff to easily leave the building. Like everyone else, diplomats need fresh air and a place to negotiate informally.

And what of the currently denuded Security Council Chamber, where all I saw to identify the famous room was the circular pit that holds the famous table for the five permanent and ten non-permanent members? Wasn’t it time to make provisions for a larger, more democratic Security Council? Adlerstein says he encouraged such a discussion by “notifying many members of the Security Council,” as well as Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, that “this was the opportunity, if there was going to be reform, and it could be done now in a way that would be very economical.” However, “I was told quite strongly by all parties that architecture will not manage reform . . . that reform will happen when reform happens, and that it’s based on politics.”

That’s too bad. Alive and well at 103, Niemeyer sent word to Adlerstein that he’s not taking on any new commissions.

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