United Nations Secretariat

Added by Christine Huh, last update: August 17, 2012, 12:53 pm

United Nations Secretariat
The UN complex as seen from the East River, source: UN Photo/Mark Garten, date: September 30, 2005
First Avenue at 42nd Street
New York City, NY 10017
United States
40° 44' 55.7304" N, 73° 58' 10.7724" W
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Identity of Building / Site
Primary classification: Administration (ADM)
Secondary classification: Urbanism (URB)
Federal, State, or Local Designation(s) and Date(s):

The United Nations Headquarters is is an International Territory.

History of Building/Site
Original Brief:

Office of the Secretariat of the United Nations

Dates: Commission / Completion:1947/ 1952
Architectural and other Designer(s): United Nations Board of Design; Wallace K. Harrison (United States: chief architect); Nikolai D. Bassov (Soviet Union), Gaston Brunfaut (Belgium), Ernest Cormier (Canada), Charles E. Le Corbusier (France), Liang Seu-Cheng (China), Sven Markelius (Sweden), Oscar Niemayer (Brazil), Howard Robertson (United Kingdom), G. A. Soilleux (Australia) and Julio Vilamajo (Uruguay).
Others associated with Building/Site:
Significant Alteration(s) with Date(s): The Secretariat had barely had alterations due to the tight budget of the United Nations. In June 1981, a two-story annex building was added at the southeast corner of the secretariat, but the interior of the Secretariat was not greatly affected from it. The first renovation of the Secretariat building – renovation of the United Nations Headquarters - began in early 2008. The core construction refurbish program includes installation of a full sprinkler system and a complete fire alarm system; replacement of the heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems; upgrading of electrical wiring and panels; replacement of lighting and ceilings; removal of asbestos; restoration of damaged finishes; consolidation and modernization of data-distribution systems; and improvements in signage, doors, bathrooms and elevators to provide better accessibility for all persons. In the Secretariat building, the major equipment on the 28th floor which generates electromagnetic fields will be removed.
Current Use: Office of the Secretariat of the United Nations
Current Condition: Following surveys conducted between 1998 and 1999 - reporting asbestos insulation, lead paint, outmoded plumbing and electrical systems, lack of sprinklers, frequent power shutdowns and a deteriorated and leaking roof - the overall building complex has begun extensive rehabilitation through the UN Capital Master Plan. The project includes replacement of the Secetariat's curtain wall with a new insulated glazing system, following the profiles of the original, and restoring the exterior's original quality of transparency.
General Description:

(Site) The United Nations Headquarters is located on seventeen and a half acres, bounded by the East River, 42nd Street, First Avenue, and 48th Street. The Franklin D. Roosevelt Drive, an expressway, goes along the river edge, so part of the buildings is cantilevered over it. Despite its rights of extra-territoriality, New York City provides many facilities to the United Nations Headquarters such as sewer connections, access from city streets, and fire protection. There is the General Assembly building, the Conference Building, and the Dag Hammarskjöld Library, the annex, and the Secretariat building in the United Nations Headquarters.

(Exterior) The Secretariat is 544 feet high, 287 feet wide and 72 feet thick with 5,400 operable windows and 5,400 glass spandrel. The exterior materials are aluminum, glass and marble. Conventional set-backs protect the wide areas of green-tinted glass on the east and the west facade from being breaking. The windowless north and south facades of the building are faced with 2,000 tons of Vermont marble. The Secretariat has 39 stories above the ground, and three basement level which link with those of the Conference Building.

(Interior) In the mid-20th century, offices of the Secretariat were small with no wasted space while some modern conveniences were offered so that the staffs function well. The glass in the aluminum-framed windows, can bring a maximum amount of natural light to the office space (20 acres), and is designed to retain solar heat. The air-conditioning system is provided for the whole building. Steel partitions attaching to brackets of the structure, can be moved quickly and easily to provide for office spaces. Telephone, electric and signaling connections are placed in ducts beneath the floors at six-foot intervals. Electric dumb-waiters and conveyors are in an integrated system, and efficiently move documents and mail all over the building. In the basement, there are maintenance shops, a fire-fighting unit, receiving and loading platforms, a pouch dispatch unit, security offices, storage, a three-level garage, an automobile service station, and a refrigeration plant for air-conditioning.

Construction Period:

Reinforced concrete, glass curtain wall, aluminum, and marble exterior

Original Physical Context:

The slab form of the Secretariat can be understood in the context of an evolution of Le Corbusier’s solid-edged slab building. His design of the Pavilion Suisse (1832) in Paris and the Ministry of Education and Health Building (1938), which he designed in collaboration with Oscar Niemeyer, in Rio de Janeiro can be considered the predecessors. Even though Mies van der Rohe did not join the the Design of the Secretariat, the design of the Secretariat seems influenced Mies van der Rohe’s post World War I glass skyscraper projects. Glass which is used for the Secretariat, is less transparent but retaining reflection like a mirror. This design was first made by Mies long before. The slab was an esthetic element of the International Style, and it stimulated the emergence of glass curtain-wall buildings in New York. For Americans, Internationalism was the symbol of postwar prosperity; for Europe it meant an opportunity for reconstruction and for developing, the countries it represented as hopes for a brighter future.
The UN complex was a successfully realized, piece of interwar-era Modernist architecture and urban design. Built out over the FDR Drive, the plaza looks more like an aircraft carrier moored along the East River than part of the city’s fabric. As a symbol, the UN the complex oddly glorifies its bureaucracy by making the offices of the 14,000 international civil servants its focus, rather than the General Assembly, which lurks, blind-walled and Nautilus-like, at its base.

Technical Evaluation:

In the mid 20th century, the buildings in the United Nations Headquarters were delicate works of construction engineering and integrated communications technology. As an early use of the curtain wall system for the high-rise building, the Secretariat’s curtain walls helped set a standard for skyscrapers. The reason for the selection of blue-green-toned Thermopane windows for the east and west facades was that they lessened the heating effect of the sun. The handling of the mechanical ventilation in pipe galleries at the 6th, 16th, 28th and 39th was an impressive construction detail. The window walls were cantilevered 2’9” beyond the structural steel columns in order to attain the effect of continuous glazing. The Thermopane glass was combined with Venetian blinds and a year-round air –conditioning system to provide brightly lit, office space. The spandrels between window bands were of the same glass, but with the inner face of each panel painted black. Inside, the offices represented a high degree of integration as well, with movable modular metal partitions and a perforated metal pan ceiling that incorporated four-foot-long, three tube troffer fluorescent light fixtures combined with square air-handling diffusers. However, the interior design of the Secretariat was considered to be merely a conventional job.


The United Nations is an international organization which is aimed to facilitate cooperation in international law, international security, economic development, social progress and human rights issues. Thus the fact that it is headquartered in New York City has a great symbolic and geographical significance. As the world’s capital, New York has escalated the status and its influence as an international city. Multinational corporations now had to consider whether their headquarters should be alongside this center of global influence.
The United Nations Secretariat is the bureaucratic organ which supplies studies, information, and facilities which the United Nations bodies need. It also conducts tasks which are directed by the Security Council, the General Assembly, the Economic and Social Council, etc. The Secretariat is headed by the Secretary-General, and international civil servants worldwide assist with the tasks. The United Nation would not operate without the Secretariat.
The United Nations Headquarters have stimulated the regional economy and elevated the land value. A number of workers of the Secretariat have contributed to the stimulator of the regional economy of New York City. In addition, the United Nations headquarters attracts numerous tourists from all over the world, and tourism has lifted the regional economy and the value of neighboring area.

Cultural & Aesthetic:
Le Corbusier’s scheme of the United Nations Headquarters was to construct an entirely isolated city. The extreme monumentality has been a subject of controversy. In spite of the fact that it has the smallest footprint among the buildings in United Nations Headquarters sites, the Secretariat visually dominates the group completely with its height and exterior materials. The Secretariat building has consequently become the characteristic form of the office building in American architecture, and it is in the technique of office building that our greatest advances have been made. It is somehow fitting that the Secretariat should become the symbol of the U.N.

Even though the Secretariat Building was not the first manifestation of international architecture, it stimulated the emergence of mass-production of high-rise buildings with glass-wall international style in the New York City and the world. The Secretariat, one of the first glass curtain-wall slabs in New York became the visual symbol of postwar architecture throughout the world. It contributed to popularizing the International Style as a postwar doctrine and universal design.
Nonetheless, the erection of the Secretariat definitely stimulated the emergence of corporate style skyscrapers in New York City. There have been lots of different opinions on the status of the Secretariat Building in the modernism architecture movement. Some opinion claimed that the architectural expression of the Secretariat Building was rather base on conventional practice. In addition, the construction of the UN headquarters implies the United States’ contribution to the modern building. Even though the concept of the Secretariat came from Le Corbusier, most of detail design and construction was conducted by Americans led by Harrison.

General Assessment:
Although it has been controversial building, the Secretariat has provided a monumental symbol for the UN and shows the ideal and innovation of building technology in the mid-20th Century. It is a fine example of the free-hanging glass and metal curtain wall. It strongly demonstrated the power of technology of controlling climate in the mid-20th century; it showed that international collaboration among architects and other professional was possible. By offering a monumental symbol for the UN, the Secretariat had given modern architecture an aura of respectability, and association with world-wide prestige. The Secretariat, the first glass curtain-wall slab in New York became the visual symbol of postwar architecture throughout the world. Americans and Europeans had tendency to take internationalism as the beginning of a new era.
Text references:

Stern, Robert A.M., Mellins, Thomas, and Fishman, David (1995), New York 1960: architecture and urbanism between the Second War and the Bicentennial, New York: Monacelli Press.

Recorder/Date: Christine Huh/ March 6, 2008
P.O. Box 230977
New York, NY 10023
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