Fred A. Bernstein

An Elite Contest for a Growing U.N.

Pritzker Prize-winners compete.

Published in The New York Times, August 5, 2003


A LITTLE more than 50 years ago, the United Nations brought together some of the world's most prominent architects, including Le Corbusier and Oscar Neimeyer, to design its headquarters on the East River. The result is a Modernist icon.

Now the United Nations needs more space, and it has once again turned to some of the world's most prominent architects. The United Nations Development Corporation, an agency created by New York City and State, is narrowing the field in an elite competition to design a 900,000-square-foot building.

Earlier this year, Roy Goodman, the former state senator who heads the development corporation, wrote to all 23 living winners of the Pritzker Prize, which is considered architecture's highest honor. The laureates include Frank Gehry, Rem Koolhaas and the nonagenarians Philip Johnson and Mr. Neimeyer. Mr. Goodman invited them to compete to design a building on First Avenue at 42nd Street, just south of the existing United Nations complex.

Several of the architects, including Robert Venturi, I. M. Pei and Mr. Gehry, decided not to compete, they or their spokesmen said. Others wanted to, but were eliminated early in the summer. Mr. Johnson's design partner, Alan Ritchie, said: "We wrote a letter, saying we were interested, and enclosed a brochure of our work. We got a `Thanks but no thanks' letter."

Joshua Ramus, a New York-based partner of Mr. Koolhaas, said that he submitted a statement of interest, but that "we weren't selected."

That left four architects in the running: Richard Meier of New York, Fumihiko Maki of Tokyo, Norman Foster of London and Kevin Roche of Hamden, Conn. All are known for creating sleek Modernist buildings.

Mr. Venturi said by telephone from Switzerland that he assumed his lack of experience with skyscrapers would have hurt his chances. His wife and design partner, Denise Scott Brown, added: "You get attached to what you design, and then you're terribly disappointed."

Told who the four finalists were, Ms. Scott Brown said: "We made the right decision. If they want those people, they wouldn't want us."

Employees of Mr. Roche and Mr. Foster said they were not at liberty to discuss the competition. The development corporation referred calls to Janel Patterson, a spokeswoman for the New York City Economic Development Corporation, who said she could not comment. But Mr. Maki and Mr. Meier said they were working on designs, which are to be be reviewed in early October.

"It won't be easy to accommodate 900,000 square feet of office and conference space on the site," said Mr. Maki, who is best known for museums in Japan and a cultural center in San Francisco. "But architects are an optimistic species."

The United Nations site is now occupied by the Robert Moses Playground and a bulky air vent for the Queens-Midtown Tunnel. And some members of the community object to the loss of the playground. But Jeffrey Wiesenfeld, a director of the United Nations Development Corporation, predicted that a proposed land swap would give the community a park far superior to the current one, because "there will be less carbon monoxide."

That, however, will not solve the problem for the four architects. Mr. Meier, who has designed a pair of new apartment buildings in the West Village but is best known for the Getty Center, his modern acropolis in Los Angeles, said he had considered talking to Mr. Maki, Mr. Roche and Mr. Foster about proposing an alternate site. But he said that the United Nations had not encouraged contact among the architects. "They've gone out of their way to keep each of us in our own stable," he said, adding that each architect had toured the site separately.

The new building would allow the United Nations to consolidate its staff. Occupants of the 50-year-old Secretariat building would move into the new one while the Secretariat undergoes a badly needed renovation. Later, United Nations offices in a variety of buildings in Midtown would move to the new tower.

Mr. Meier enters the competition with some trepidation. "The energy that goes into the process is enormous, and it's all on our part," he said. "And who knows what they're going to do?"