The United Nations has a long tradition of employing the world’s finest architects.
The original Secretariat complex was the work of Le Corbusier and Oscar Niemeyer, two of the most revered designers ever to pick up a T-square. DC-1 and DC-2, the 1976 expansion of the campus better known as U.N. Plaza, was designed by Kevin Roche, builder of many New York towers and heir to the throne of Eero Saarinen.
In 2002, when it came time to plan for a new tower to house this globetrotting workforce, the United Nations Development Corporation, the city agency that handles all U.N. property, held a competition. It was open only to Pritzker Prize winners, and Japanese architect Fumihiko Maki was selected in 2004. Not long after, the project ran into political hurdles and was put on hold, but earlier this month Albany, the city and the U.N. reached a deal so the project can move forward. Almost as soon as the ink had dried on the land swap, Mr. Maki and his local partners, FXFowle, unrolled their blueprints and got back to work.
“We have a saying around the office,” Dan Kaplan, a principal at FXFowle in charge of the project, told The Observer. “It takes a long time for things to happen suddenly.”
Mr. Kaplan explained that much of the design work had been completed for a 35-story tower on the site, and while it will not change significantly, it does require some updating. Before, there were plans to build a temporary General Assembly on the playground before the new office tower was built, but that was instead constructed two years ago on the U.N.’s north lawn. The Secretariat is undergoing a $2 billion renovation, and after the earlier deal fell apart, the world body felt it could not wait to begin rebuilding its campus.
Instead, the designers will reassess the U.N.’s space needs and tweak the designs accordingly. “We’re not back to square-one, maybe square 1.5,” Mr. Kaplan said. “It’s a tight site and a tight building envelope, so I don’t think the designs will change that much, but we are going back over everything.” When Mr. Maki created his winning design, it drew upon the original Secretariat for inspiration, creating a long, narrow slab with those expansive east-west exposures.
”The thin slab is something quite unique because in America office buildings tend to be large and squarish,” Mr. Maki told The Times in 2004, after it was revealed he would be designing the project. His most notable project in the city, if not the world, is Tower 4 at the World Trade Center, which is currently rising downtown. Among FXFowle’s many New York projects are 11 Times Square, Northside Piers in Williamsburg and The New York Times Building, where the firm partnered with another Pritzker winner, Italy’s Renzo Piano.
Jeffrey Feldman, president and CEO of the U.N. Development Corporation, said he hopes to have designs ready by early next year, so the project will be ready to go through the city’ land-use review process. Integral as the U.N. is seen by many New Yorkers to our standing as capital of the world—unpaid parking tickets aside—its plans will likely face a good deal of scrutiny not only from U.N. opponents like the Heritage Foundation but also neighbors in Tudor City, who oppose the project because it will block their views of the East River and Queens.
“The plans could certainly change, but right now our focus is on reconstituting our team,” Mr. Feldman said. If all goes as planned, the project will break ground in 2013.
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated the designer of U.N. Plaza as John Dinkerloo, Mr. Roche’s partner. The Observer regrets the error.