Published in

The UN's Extreme Makeover

Since it was built in 1952, the United Nations complex has been the flagship of the modern movement of design in the world.

Its principal architects, Le Corbusier and Oscar Niemeyer, designed the U.N. headquarters in an austere, simple style -- with clean lines, smooth surfaces, and a lot of glass, wood, and soft peace-inducing hues. Think the Sterling Cooper offices in Mad Men.

But a renovation is now underway. The massive project, dubbed the Capital Master Plan, will cost nearly $2 billion and will bring the building up to 21st century environmental standards. It will dramatically improve on energy efficiency and cut the U.N.'s Con Ed bill in half, as well as cut carbon production by 45 percent. And, luckily for aficionados of mid-century modern design, there is also an elaborate strategy to preserve and restore the complex's iconic features, keeping the U.N. looking like it's 1952. Those mid-century blue and tan leather chairs in the General Assembly room are here to stay. 

WNYC got a peek at the U.N. packing-up with the director of the project, Assistant Secretary General Michael Adlerstein, whose credits include restoration of the Statue of Liberty and of Ellis Island. We also went to the "bowels" of the U.N. (ten feet below the East River) with Capital Master Plan official Werner Schmidt.

"When we tried to convince member states that it was time for a renovation, they didn't really believe us," says Schmidt. His underground tour convinced them that it was time to modernize, and so member nations agreed to pick up the tab. That's $2 billion split between all 192 member countries, with the cost on a sliding scale in relation to the country's yearly contribution to the U.N. operating budget.