U.N.’s Makeover Sacrifices Hammarskjold Library for Security
by David W. Dunlap
When the 70th regular session of the General Assembly convenes on Sept. 15, it will do so in a complex of buildings that hasn’t looked so good or felt so secure in generations.
“We now have a very safe compound,” said Michael Adlerstein, an assistant secretary general and the executive director of a seven-year, $2.15 billion renovation, known as the capital master plan, that is nearing completion. More visible than anything else is the robust yet crystalline new glass facade of the 39-story Secretariat building.
Yet the compound has been diminished.
For fear that the Dag Hammarskjold Library is vulnerable to ever more compact vehicle-borne bombs, United Nations officials have all but emptied the south side of the four-story building, which is only about 35 feet from a ramp off Franklin D. Roosevelt Drive.
Completed in 1961 as a gift from the Ford Foundation, the library has one of the loveliest spaces in the compound: a penthouse reception room that feels like an island of luminous tranquillity, with a joyful mural by the Swedish artist Bo Beskow. Downstairs is an intimate, walnut-paneled auditorium in which staff members have long enjoyed cultural programs.
Both have been closed indefinitely, as has the staff cafeteria in the South Annex.
“We don’t want anyone in this building who would be a target,” Mr. Adlerstein said. Gatherings of any kind, especially with V.I.P.s, are necessarily ruled out.
About 100 people still work in the library, but on the north side, facing the secured campus. Rooms on the south side are empty or used for storage. Netting covers the south-facing windows to catch flying pieces of glass in case of an explosion outside.
This is the paradox of the United Nations of 2015: Security perils are far smaller in scale but much closer to home than in the late 1940s and early ’50s, when the complex was under construction as the prospect of atomic annihilation arose.
Today, a bomb is more likely be driven up than dropped from the skies.
“The threats are very different now,” said Paul Eagle, a principal and managing director of Perkins & Will, the architects in charge of strategy and planning for the renovation.
On Aug. 19, 2003, as Perkins & Will was negotiating its contract for the project, a suicide bomber detonated an explosive-filled truck outside the United Nations mission at the Canal Hotel in Baghdad. Among the 21 staff members killed was Sergio Vieira de Mello, the special representative to Iraq.
On Dec. 11, 2007, one day after the General Assembly approved a five-year, $1.876 billion renovation project at its headquarters, a suicide bomber blew up a car on a roadway between two United Nations offices in Algiers, killing 17 staff members.
With the renovation underway in 2010, the United States Mission to the United Nations provided new criteria for judging structural resistance to blasts.
Security measures were bolstered to meet the revised standards. To finance the $100 million upgrade, the United Nations — with the assent of the State Department — drew down a standing United States account, called the tax equalization fund, a step criticized by conservatives.
The Conference Building was a focal point of the upgrade. It is in this low-slung structure, over the southbound lanes of F.D.R. Drive, that the Security Council meets, as do the Trusteeship Council and Economic and Social Council, each in its own large assembly hall.
During the renovation, mechanical rooms were constructed along a lower level of the building, directly above the highway, to serve as sacrificial, unoccupied buffer space. These rooms are intended to absorb the first impact of any blast from a vehicle on the drive.
Above the mechanical rooms, thick concrete slabs have been installed. These heavy shields slope outward toward the East River, the idea being that debris created by the upward force of a blast would be deflected into the water and not travel up into the occupied halls.
Connections were also strengthened between the columns inside the building and the caps of the river pilings from which they rise. This is to ensure that a blast cannot lift the structure a few inches in the air, an event that would almost certainly cause its collapse as it dropped again.
To preserve the considerable transparency of the complex while safeguarding lives within, the Conference Building, the Secretariat tower and the domed General Assembly Hall were all given new glass facades, or curtain walls, intended to absorb blast forces.
“Everything is exactly tuned to fail in a prescribed way,” said Robert A. Heintges, senior partner in Evans Heintges Architects, which designed the replacements, and Heintges & Associates, facade consultants.
By that, he meant that the glass was designed to break in order to absorb energy but — importantly — remain in place within the frames, while transferring the remaining blast energy to the frames. These would break, too, absorbing more energy, but also stay in place, transferring the residual energy to the anchors holding them to the building structure. The dissipated energy is then “easily accommodated” by the underlying structure.
“What is unique about the U.N. Secretariat curtain wall,” Mr. Heintges said, “is that it does all this while faithfully replicating the original design.”
The original design of the compound, with the Secretariat and General Assembly Hall kept at a distance from First Avenue, also benefited the current master plan. “Setback is the greatest defense against attack,” Mr. Adlerstein said.
But the new criteria required even more standoff distance, so the secure perimeter was expanded to the curb line of First Avenue, using bollards. Such an expansion was impossible in the case of the Hammarskjold Library, named for the second secretary general. And, Mr. Adlerstein said, the library cannot practicably be retrofitted to conform to new standards.
A month after Mr. Hammarskjold died in a plane crash in 1961, Henry T. Heald, the president of the Ford Foundation, suggested that the library be named in his honor to symbolize the hope that it would become a center of efforts to bring about “peace on earth.”
For the time being, at least, the library has become a symbol of something darker.
Photo on the left:
A view looking east on 42nd Street shows how close the four-story Dag Hammarskjold Library is to the off ramp from the Franklin D. Roosevelt Drive — too close to be considered fully secure.
Photo on the right:
The Woodrow Wilson Reading Room on the second floor of the Hammarskjold library has a distinctive 22-foot-high curving ceiling made of wood.
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