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.
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.
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 is a co-founder, with Barbara Crossette, of PassBlue. For PassBlue and other publications, Leimbach has reported from New York and overseas from West Africa (Burkina Faso and Mali) and from Europe (Scotland, Sicily, Vienna, Budapest, Kyiv, Armenia, Iceland and The Hague). She has provided commentary on the UN for BBC World Radio, ARD German TV and Radio, NHK’s English channel, Background Briefing with Ian Masters/KPFK Radio in Los Angeles and the Foreign Press Association.
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. 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 Boulder, Colo., graduating to the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and then working at The Times. Leimbach has been a fellow at the CUNY Graduate Center’s Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies as well as at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.; taught news reporting at Hofstra University; and guest-lectured at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the CUNY Journalism School. 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.