Within the monolithic UN Headquarters there’s a chamber that is being restored to its former retro glory. It was originally designed by the Danish architect Finn Juhl and now, in a brave move, it’s being put back to exactly how it was in 1953.
An icon of modern design and diplomacy, the UN Headquarters in New York has been involved in a $2bn restoration process since 2008 that is due for completion in 2013. Among the thousands of square metres that are being rejuvenated lies the Trusteeship Council Chamber, a golden nugget of mid-century Danish design in America.
Housed in the Conference Building, the chamber was a gift from the government of Denmark to the UN in 1952. Nearly 60 years later the Danes are back to oversee its proper restoration and preserve the vision of Finn Juhl, the Danish architect and designer who conceived the original space.
“We were asked by the UN if Denmark would contribute to the restoration so that Finn Juhl’s spirit would not be lost,” says Mogens Morgen, who heads the Danish Heritage Agency, responsible for the project. Following smaller but significant updates to the design in 1964 and 1977, Juhl’s stamp was gradually being diluted. So it’s refreshing that there’s a respect for the original character.
“If Denmark had not contributed, the room would have been completely changed,” Morgen explains. So with $3m (€2.3m) provided by the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Culture together with the Realdania Foundation, work began to reinstate Finn Juhl’s original 1952 design.
From a simple box space, Juhl designed a chamber with separate areas for the audience, delegates and Council itself – united through a common use of materials. Today, the designer’s ash wall-panelling is being restored alongside his jaunty, colourful ceiling, which gives the chamber its unique character. A carpet has been made to original designs and a curtain woven in Denmark will hang in front of the floor-to-ceiling windows with a breathtaking view over the East River.
The most intensive part of the restoration has been reinstating Juhl’s original horseshoe floor-plan that had been changed in 1977 to accommodate a growing number of delegates. Not only historically relevant, reinstating the original seating arrangement of the hall has greater meaning for Morgen. “The space became very hierarchical and we wanted to make it more democratic. Rather than having countries sit behind each other, we have them facing each other once again. That is a very important symbolism for us.” With much of the original furniture lost, the Danish government commissioned new delegates’ tables and secretarial chairs and tables from Copenhagen-based duo Salto & Sigsgaard and built 260 new chairs from Juhl’s original fj51 design.
“It’s been a great partnership,” says Michael Adlerstein, the executive director and assistant secretary-general of the Capital Master Plan – the team managing the restoration of the entire compound. “Most member states have chosen to design a room that reflects the modern culture of their country. This is often wonderful but working with the Danes on the Trusteeship Council Chamber has been particularly rewarding because the reflection they want to make is the one that was made in 1953. It’s a true restoration of what was there.”
In 1950, Trygve Lie – the first secretary general of the UN – invited Denmark, Sweden and Norway to each donate one of the three main council chambers in the new Conference Building. Denmark outfitted the Trusteeship Council Chamber and commissioned the then relatively unknown architect and designer Finn Juhl for the job. Juhl designed every aspect of the room. Among his most striking of innovations is the blue ceiling, which holds wooden rails and multicoloured lightboxes. As the number of member states grew, the Chamber was adapted. When first changed in 1964, Juhl was consulted but he was too old to have influence over the 1977 changes. Today’s restoration process turns the design back to Juhl’s 1952 original.