• The UN Security Council Chamber Reopens With a Touch of Class

    by  • April 29, 2013 • Secretary-General, Security Council • 

    UN Security Council Chamber reopening

    United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon spoke at the Security Council Chamber reopening celebration on April 16, 2013, where he received a tie made from the room's old drapes. The horseshoe-shaped table for the council members and the original Norwegian designed mural and marble framework, on the east wall, remain intact after the three-year renovation. JOHN PENNEY

    The Norwegians have always influenced the direction of the United Nations either subtly or directly, starting with the world body’s first secretary-general, Trygve Lie, hailing from Norway. Now, with the reopening of the Security Council Chamber after being closed for three years, the country is once again leaving its mark. It not only paid for much of the chamber as a gift in 1952 but also for some of the chamber’s recent improvements as part of Norway’s $8.2 million contribution to the full renovation of UN headquarters in New York.

    Espen Barth Eide, the Norwegian foreign minister, said the evening of the reopening celebration, on April 16, 2013, that though “Norway does not have a permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council Chamber,” the council’s “chairs and other interiors” are all Norwegian. One of Lie’s many strategies as secretary-general, from 1946 to 1953, was to ensure that Norway played a deciding role in the chamber’s design, knowing how important the room would become over the decades.

    As part of the current Capital Master Plan renovation, the redone chamber is a sign that work is finishing even as rehabilitation is just beginning on the General Assembly Hall. Asbestos has been removed, a new ventilation system has been installed and technological updates have been carried out in the chamber and elsewhere. The UN celebrated the room’s new look and feel with an uncharacteristically brief ceremony that featured a speech by Ban Ki-moon, the secretary-general; Eide; Geir Pedersen, Norway’s ambassador to the UN; and the screening of a documentary with Erik Satie background music, produced by Norway and the International Peace Institute, whose president is Terje Rod Larsen, a former Norwegian diplomat.

    UN Security Council Chamber wallpaper

    In a photo by the Royal Norwegian Foreign Ministry, a section of the wallpaper and marble framework underneath.

    The chamber, known informally as the Norway Room, gleams with new appurtenances and hushed beige carpet while also retaining many original features. Designed by Arnstein Arneberg, a Norwegian architect at the time, the high-ceiling room captures the essence of what the UN strove to become: fair, judicial and smart. The room was inaugurated on Aug. 22, 1952, but the first meeting in it occurred a few months earlier, on April 4. Up to 120 seats are reserved for the press and 400 for the general public in an amphitheater style layout. Given the tight security measures in place at the UN nowadays, it is hard to imagine the public actually filling those seats.

    Even back then, money was a problem at the UN. It operated with a budget of $120,000 for the creation of the Security Council Chamber. That was to cover the treatment of walls and ceiling, furniture, railings and marble work. Arneberg’s first proposal far exceeded this amount without the decorations. So he reduced costs by partly cutting back on the use of marble on the east wall and by painting the railings instead of using stainless steel. Although the goal was to have all UN members contribute to the expenses, that plan failed, and Norway footed the additional bill of about $15,000.

    UN Delegates Dining Lounge

    The south side of the UN Delegates Lounge, down the hall from the Security Council Chamber. Panelists spoke about the council upon its reopening in April 2013. JOHN PENNEY

    In the recent renovation, Norway paid for the new wallpaper and draperies and for refurbishing the horseshoe-shaped table, where the Security Council members preside. The chamber’s original Zen qualities of peace and calm prevail, while the huge picture windows on the East River capture long views of Brooklyn and Queens. Although they are covered with heavy drapes, enough sunlight might peep through to remind Security Council members that their work affects the world far beyond their priestly quarters.

    The drapes were hung by Arneberg to prevent daylight hitting delegates’ eyes or creating shadows that obscured their counterparts at the horseshoe table.

    Ashtrays are now gone and the clock on the south wall near the translation booths still doesn’t work, but new data outlets at the table prove in a small way that the UN is capable of changing for the better.

    Arneberg, who had also designed Lie’s country cottage, Lieset, on Lake Rugel in Norway, wanted the design to represent the country’s art and culture and aim for a “character so neutral that it could withstand the test of time.” Lie pushed that plan with the weight of his office and political contacts back in Oslo. Norwegian craftsmanship continues to be on display: the new straw wallpaper on the back wall comes from the same Norwegian company, Biri, that made it long ago.

    On the longitudinal walls, the original soothing blue silk-damask wallpaper with yellow motifs symbolizing anchors of faith, wheat bundles of hope and hearts of charity has been replaced with a rayon version. (The drapes echo the wallpaper.) Designed by a Norwegian textile artist, Else Poulsson, the damask was fireproofed in the 1950s but it shrank, causing much consternation that was ultimately resolved.

    The Norway Room is entered through enormous ash-wood doors, produced by a carpenter named Hakon Wollan, another Norwegian, who is still alive. But it is the oil canvas mural covering most of the east wall that dominates the space. Painted by Per Krohg, a student of Matisse, it emphasizes a phoenix rising theme, depicting the UN’s birth from the cinders of World War II. Krohg, who was the son of Norwegian painters and grew up in Paris, wrote in 1950 of the mural: “The essence of the idea is to give an impression of light, security and joy. The world we see in the foreground is collapsing, while the new world based on clarity and harmony can be built up.”

    At first, the idea of such a vivid artwork hanging so close to the members of the council was deemed a possible distraction, but apparently Arneberg, the architect, secured its presence in the chamber in time for the official opening in 1952. It could very well be the best distraction the members may face in the next 50 years.

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    Dulcie Leimbach

    About

    Dulcie Leimbach is a fellow of the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies at the Graduate Center of CUNY. She is the founder of PassBlue, for which she edits and writes, covering primarily the United Nations, West Africa, peacekeeping operations and women's issues. For PassBlue and other publications, she has reported from New York and overseas in West Africa (Burkina Faso, Mali and Senegal) as well as from Europe (Scotland, Vienna, Budapest and The Hague).

    Previously, she was an editor for the Coalition for the UN Convention Against Corruption; from 2008 to 2011, she was the publications director of the United Nations Association of the USA, where she edited its flagship magazine, The InterDependent, and migrated it online in 2010. She was also the senior editor of UNA's annual book, "A Global Agenda: Issues Before the UN." She has also worked as an editorial consultant to various UN agencies.

    Before UNA, Leimbach was an editor at The New York Times for more than 20 years, editing and writing for most sections of the paper, including the Magazine, Book Review and Op-Ed. She began her reporting career in small-town papers in San Diego, Calif., and Colorado, graduating to the Rocky Mountain News in Denver before she worked in New York at Esquire magazine and Adweek. In between, she was a Wall Street foreign-exchange dealer. Leimbach has been a fellow at Yaddo, the artists' colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., and taught news reporting at Hofstra University. She graduated from the University of Colorado and has an M.F.A. in writing from Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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