Michael Bierut | Essays

Design by Committee

Public Lobby, United Nations General Assembly Building. Photograph by Ben Murphy, 2005

Design by committee. No one likes it. No one wants it. Even clients disavow it: "We don't what to get you into a design-by-committee situation here," they'll tell you, usually just before they actually start forming a committee to help you design.

But every once in a while it works. If you doubt this, look at the complex of buildings that rises on the East River in midtown Manhattan: the headquarters of the United Nations.

To those outside who question us we can reply: we are united, we are a team: the World Team of the United Nations laying down the plans of a world architecture, world, not international, for therein we shall respect the human, natural and cosmic laws...There are no names attached to this work. As in any human enterprise, there is simply discipline, which alone is capable of bringing order.
Le Corbusier, quoted in The U.N. Building

The U.N. Headquarters Building was designed in the spring and summer of 1947, in the rush of optimism that followed the end of World War II. The site was a 17-acre wasteland of slaughterhouses and slums at the eastern end of 42nd Street, purchased for the U.N. for $8.5 million by the Rockefeller family. Le Corbusier, who had submitted a provocative design for the never-realized Palace of the League of Nations twenty years before, was determined to make the U.N. a demonstration of his ideas about architecture and urbanism, and he made sure he was part of the process, actively lobbying the international committee that was charged with planning the U.N.'s home. But the Rockefeller money shifted the balance of power; the project's executive architect and director of planning would be the family's favorite, Wallace K. Harrison, who had worked on Rockefeller Center and, before that, the 1939 World's Fair in Queens. The tug of war between these two architects — Corbu, the intransigent ideologue, and Harrison, the practical company man — would define the terms under which the committee would operate.

Information Kiosk, United Nations General Assembly Building. Photograph by Ben Murphy, 2005

"A survey of the history of the U.N. Building's design does not give the reader a sense that anything great could emerge from that tortured and happenstance process," says Aaron Betsky in The U.N. Building, a new book of beautiful photographs by Ben Murphy, former art director of The Face, which has been published by Thames & Hudson in anticipation of the design's 60th anniversary. Le Corbusier suggested a list of leading modernist architects to collaborate on the project, but Harrison formed a team of less well-known and perhaps more malleable designers who had been nominated by the U.N.'s member governments. In addition to Harrison and Corbusier, it included Nikolai Bassov (Soviet Union), Gaston Brunfaut (Belgium), Ernest Cormier (Canada), Liang Seu-Cheng (China), Sven Markelius (Sweden), Oscar Niemeyer (Brazil), Howard Robertson (United Kingdom), Guy Soilleux (Australia) and Julio Vilamajo (Uruguay). (Alvar Aalto, Mies van der Rohe and Walter Gropius were excluded from the team because Finland and Germany were not then members of the U.N.)

The design process took four months. Harrison's assistant George Dudley kept a journal of the committee's 45 meetings, eventually published as Workshop for Peace: Designing the United Nations Headquarters. This process, writes Betsky, "was unprecedented in the way it sought to produce a unified design out of the collective labors of a group of architects drawn from so wide a field, and such an idealistic way of working has not been tried since." It was quickly decided to separate out the functions of the institution into separate buildings, much as Le Corbusier had proposed for the League of Nations before. The debate, then, centered on the placement of these components: a general assembly building for delegates from all countries to meet twice a year; a conference building for meetings of committees and councils; and a secretariat building for the U.N.'s ongoing business. Le Corbusier had been long obsessed with an urban vision of "towers in a park," as opposed to a more modest grouping of smaller structures; Harrison's own, more populist, vision, shaped by the abstract structures of the World's Fair and the urban city-within-a-city at Rockefeller Center, was not entirely incompatible. The design committee generated proposals for every possible configuration of the complex's major elements, including one from Sweden's Sven Markelius, who proposed a curving bridge to connect the site with Queens to permit the U.N.'s future expansion.

In the end, it was not Le Corbusier or Harrison but a young Brazilian architect, Oscar Niemeyer, then not yet 40 years old, who developed Corbusier's plan into the configuration that was the basis for the final design. As Betsky writes, "After much jockeying and arguments — Harrison claimed that at one of the meetings Le Corbusier tore all the drawings except his own off the wall and then stomped out (a claim that cannot be verified) — the committee unanimously agreed on a scheme." This arrangement — the low Conference Building on the East River, the bow tie-shaped General Assembly Building to the north, and, rising above it all, the slab of the Secretariat — is what was built, with some modifications, as the design team envisioned it.

More arguments were to follow, particularly over the cladding of the monumental Secretariat, where Le Corbusier demanded a brise soliel to provide shade, but lost, predictably, to the more practical Harrison, who suggested a brand-new product called Thermapane which had a distinctive green color and created the "glass wall" which has become indelibly associated with the United Nations. The detailing of the buildings, as well as the interiors, were overseen by Harrison and his firm. Interiors were created by designers as various as Denmark's Finn Juhl (the Trusteeship Council Chamber), Norway's Arnstein Arneberg (the Security Council Chamber) and the original design team's Sven Markelius (the Economic and Social Council Chamber).

"The initial reaction to the building upon its completion in 1952," writes Betsky, "was one of sometimes grudging and even surprised approval. Most critics had not expected this design by committee to work, but most were immediately struck by its effectiveness as image." Some, like Lewis Mumford, observed that the elegant Secretariat tower was still nothing more than an office building, signaling "that the managerial revolution had taken place and that bureaucracy rules the world," while nevertheless conceding that it was "one of the most perfect achievements of modern technics: as fragile as a spiderweb, as crystalline as a sheet of ice, as geometrical as a beehive."

Corridor, United Nations Conference Building. Photograph by Ben Murphy, 2005

In the half century since, critical opinion of the U.N. Headquarters has had its ups and downs; in 1978, Paul Goldberger called the glass box "a symbol not of progress but of conservatism," and said the U.N. looked "nothing if not old-fashioned, even a bit quaint." Inevitably, it is linked in the public mind to the disappointments that have followed the hopes of those early years. The buildings have not been well maintained, particularly the interiors, and their forlorn quality now project a kind of provincialism that makes the idea of world peace seem sentimental and naive. The U.N. is about to embark on an ambitious program of renovation, restoration and expansion; one hopes that the physical renewal of the buildings might provoke a renewal of the collaborative ideals that caused them to be built in the first place.

But why be naive? We associate "design by committee" with compromise and acquiescence. Perhaps the secret of the U.N. design committee's success was not its mythic equanimity but rather the unremitting tension between Le Corbusier and Wallace Harrison, tension which continued after the project's completion as each disputed the other's contribution. Years later, Rem Koolhaas described the forced merger between Le Corbusier's "dry theoretical pretension" and Harrison's "polymorphously perverse professionalism" like this: "The U.N. was a building that an American could never have thought and a European could never have built. It was a collaboration, not only between two architects, but between cultures; a cross-fertilization between Europe and America produced a hybrid that could not have existed without their mating, however unenthusiastic."

In these pessimistic times, it's reassuring to think that enthusiasm is not a prerequisite to success and that conflict, not harmony, can be a source of greatness.

Posted in: Architecture, History, Photography

Comments [4]

I don't know the status of the planned "rebuilding" project, but I hope that the design of the complex (including the interiors and signage) will be preserved. Since the UN headquarters is not officially located in the United States, none of our landmarks preservation laws can be applied to the buildings, even though they would clearly qualify for such protection.

Meanwhile, anyone who admires the United Nations complex (and/or the United Nations itself) should get their hands on a copy of International Territory: The United Nations 1945-1995. Published by Verso but currently out of print, this collection of beautiful photos by Adam Bartos is an amazing look inside the time capsule that is the UN.
Scott Stowell

"anyone who admires the United Nations complex (and/or the United Nations itself) should get their hands on a copy of International Territory: The United Nations 1945-1995".

Link below.


On Sabbatical

I'm not sure about Betsky's "not ever been done since" notion. Perhaps, in terms of creating an international group of big shots (and how many were big shots at the time, besides Corb and Harrison. Even Niemeyer has only recently been recognized for his achievements internationally.)
I can think of the studio environment created for the 1984 Olympics in L.A. led by David Meckel. He created a model of architects, graphic artists and the building trades working and created a collaborative charette environment all housed in a giant warehouse.
The LA Olympics effectively turned around the trend of money-losing Olympics from the 1970s while utilizing the California emphasis on collaboration that would eventually become the hallmark of the 1990s internet revolution.

I've just witness a meeting today which was supposed to confirm/finalise floor plan. Instead, the meeting ended up as a design session. There were 2 project managers, 3 marketing personnels. Inclusive of myself, my colleague whom was supposed to be in charged of the project and the office principal, there were 8 designers! I think it was a mass.

"..every once in a while it works..."
I think that's the key line.

Maybe it's brief forming rather than designing...and the committee should always be represented by a deceision maker.

look from www.studiolda.com

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