The Los Angeles Times

May 24, 2005, The Los Angeles Times

An Act of Self-Preservation

UNESCO is restoring its crumbling, controversial but pedigreed Modernist headquarters. Yes, it's time for the guardian of world culture to set its own house in order.

When the leading association devoted to the preservation of Modernist architecture held its international conference in Paris three years ago, many of its members were taken aback by conditions at the onetime showplace of 20th century design where they gathered. Warped window frames, grime-streaked concrete, cracked glass panels and peeling paint greeted delegates of the watchdog group Docomomo at the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization headquarters.

In recent years, large mesh nets have been hung from the façade of UNESCO’s main building to catch falling chunks of concrete. Roofs leaked and water damage plagued the basement where archives are stored. The neglected state of the UNESCO complex seems particularly paradoxical given the agency’s role as a guardian of the world’s cultural heritage. Since 2000, UNESCO has embarked on a campaign to add Modernist monuments to its World Heritage List, which obligates U.N. member states to care for sites in their territories.

Now that the list is rapidly expanding to include Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Villa Tugendhat in the Czech Republic, Luis Barragan’s house in Mexico City and the array of Bauhaus-inspired buildings in Tel Aviv, UNESCO is at last moving to restore its own premises. Although it drew worldwide attention and controversy when it was completed in 1958, the Left Bank headquarters has sunk into relative obscurity and disrepair among the French capital’s other fabled landmarks. But with a renovation plan under way, the din of jackhammers and pneumatic drills has joined the hum of multilingual deliberations echoing through the complex.

The design embodies the idealistic spirit of internationalism from which the United Nations arose. Here the post-World War II hope for political cooperation among nations found architectural expression in the collaboration between the Hungarian-born American architect Marcel Breuer, Italy’s Pier Luigi Nervi and Bernard Zehrfuss of France. All were renowned for their technical innovations, and with this ambitious project — opened six years after the U.N. General Assembly building in New York — they strove to give visual testimony to the agency’s mission to provide universal access to learning and culture.

U.N. planners also sought a vivid synthesis of art and architecture, embellishing the Paris complex with paintings and sculpture by Pablo Picasso, Joan Miro, Henry Moore, Alberto Giacometti, Alexander Calder, Rufino Tamayo, Jean Arp and an enchanting garden by Isamu Noguchi. The garden was restored in 2000 with Japanese support. Its cherry, plum, magnolia and bamboo trees are kept manicured courtesy of the Tokyo government, which regularly sends gardeners from Japan to Paris for this purpose.

Breuer, who later designed Manhattan’s Whitney Museum, created a Y-shaped office block for the UNESCO Secretariat, with a curving, seven-story façade that completes the hemicycle form of the 18th century Place de Fontenoy fronting France’s historic E’cole Militaire in the seventh arrondissement. Inspired by the designs of Le Corbusier — who was embittered at not winning the UNESCO commission himself — the travertine-clad Secretariat sits atop massive tapered pillars of raw concrete. The delicate swoop of the dramatic main entry canopy looks almost as if fashioned from stretched canvas but is actually a thin shell of molded concrete.

There are three adjacent buildings that complete the complex, including a subterranean structure added in 1965 by Zehrfuss that brings together six sunken courtyards. The most distinctive building is the General Conference Hall where Nervi used his acknowledged prowess as the greatest living architectural engineer to create sloping walls of pleated concrete with a ribbed ceiling that makes this impressive structure resemble an abstracted accordion.

Yet critical response to the architecture was mixed after its debut. Lewis Mumford found UNESCO insufficiently avant-garde and dismissed it in the New Yorker as a “Museum of Antiquated Modernities,” while singling out the conference building as a “structure of great architectural distinction” that was “as finely molded as a scallop shell.” UNESCO was the first large-scale example of Modernist design built in Paris, rendering it a prime target for French critics who vilified what they saw as an alien apparition marring the harmonious urban fabric. The complex provoked local opposition not seen since the construction of the Eiffel Tower.

And it can still rankle

Antipathy to the buildings within the ranks of UNESCO remains widespread today, according to Ron van Oers, the agency’s chief official for the global preservation of 20th century architecture.

“I’m not fond of the design,” he admits, complaining that it’s all too easy to lose one’s way along the winding corridors. “The fact that great architects have worked on it doesn’t make it a great building.”

In a bid to revise such appraisals, U.N. administrators assembled hundreds of staff members last June for a lecture by architect Joseph Belmont, singing the compound’s praises. Belmont, who drew up the restoration plan and is a former colleague of Jean Prouvé, conceded that the modern movement had made “spectacular errors,” but cited the UNESCO headquarters as among its “magnificent successes” and one that perfectly illustrated the movement’s theories.

An American art historian who has researched the site, Christopher Pearson of Trinity University in San Antonio, spoke next and likened the fallen UNESCO headquarters to an ancient Egyptian temple half-buried in sand, “a ruin on a colossal scale” that might reveal to future archeologists the keys to 20th century civilization.

Pearson went on to argue that the original design manifested the fierce desire among postwar intellectuals to heal the rift between science and humanism so as to harness technology’s destructive capacity for humane ends.

A landmark’s decline

Nearly half a century later, however, UNESCO failed to maintain the premises, in part due to austerity measures imposed when the agency’s budget plummeted by a third with the withdrawal of the United States in 1984 and Britain the following year. (Both have since rejoined, saying that the corruption and anti-Western bias that led them to quit has been alleviated.)

By 2000, the headquarters had become so dilapidated that member states urgently collected $21.5 million to ensure safety and security.

France, as UNESCO’s host government, has agreed to supply an additional $104-million interest-free loan to pay for a more extensive, thorough restoration of the crumbling façades and decrepit interior. Work on this phase began last year and will proceed in stages until 2008.

Central air conditioning is being installed for the first time since Breuer devised what he touted as a revolutionary system of natural ventilation and cooling, using crosscurrents, concrete brises soleils or sunshades, and heat-absorbent glass panels poised in front of the main window frames. The system swiftly proved an abject failure in the sweltering summers that periodically afflict Paris. All the same, the sunshades and glass panels are being carefully replaced in the interest of historical authenticity. “We are renovating a l’identique ,” says Anatoly Egoshkin, a former Soviet diplomat overseeing the restoration as director of UNESCO’s Headquarters Division.

Will the refurbished headquarters merit its own place on the ever growing World Heritage List of cultural and natural treasures of “outstanding universal value,” alongside the Acropolis, the Pyramids and the Great Wall of China?

Gerard Monnier, professor emeritus of architectural history at the Sorbonne, argues in the affirmative, citing its tremendous influence in spreading the concept of Modernism to the developing world via the countless delegates who have worked in and alongside UNESCO’s art and architecture.

A listing could come with time, agrees UNESCO’s assistant director-general for culture, Mounir Bouchenaki. For the moment, he adds, “It’s easier to recognize a Gothic cathedral or a classical Greek site. That is changing. There is now a deep awareness about the importance of this building. Finally, some care is being taken about it. The restoration sends a very important message to member states and conservators about modern architecture.”