Art: Cheops' Architect

  • Share
  • Read Later

(2 of 7)

In the eyes of Trygve Lie, U.N. Secretary General, Harrison had special qualifications for top U.N. architect: he had helped build Rocke feller Center. Moreover, Har rison had been a member of the committee to bring the U.N. to Manhattan, and had assisted Rockefeller in his purchase and gift of the building site. Lie's first step was to name Harrison director of planning; then a consulting board of design was brought together from member nations. France sent brilliant, temperamental Le Corbusier (real name: Charles Edouard Jeanneret), famous for developing the city-in-a-park idea in the '20s. The others: Australia's G. A. Soilleux, Belgium's Gaston Brunfaut, Brazil's Oscar Niemeyer, Britain's Howard Robertson, Canada's Ernest Cormier, China's Ssu-ch'eng Liang, Russia's N. D. Bassov, Swe den's Sven Markelius and Uruguay's Julio Vilamajo.

Given the restrictions of the relatively small Manhattan site, there was never any real debate about whether to build a skyscraper or not. The only question was what kind of skyscraper. Few of the non-U.S. architects had had much chance to work on buildings of really soaring height. They welcomed U.S. engineering experience on such problems as wind bracing, elevators, plumbing and fire prevention. Ideas and sketches (all unsigned, since it was to be a group project) piled in and got knocked down right & left. Harrison wanted a bow front for the Assembly; Corbusier saw the Secretariat set on delicate stilts. Both ideas were discarded. Someone wanted all the elevators put at one end of the building instead of in the center. Russia's Bassov stayed up late one night figuring how many extra steps that would mean for the U.N.'s 3,200 office workers, and the elevators stayed in the center. In four months Harrison had a basic design to show the U.N. "In Europe," said Belgium's Brunfaut, "we could not imagine such rapidity."

Windowless Walls. Though most of the kudos for the overall slab design must go to Corbusier, the panel credits Harrison with translating the basic ideas into blueprints. The final decisions were also his, as chief planner. Most of the time he would sit back, listen to the arguments, then advance his own practical solutions. When the group was satisfied that it had sketched out a workable U.N. workshop, it was time to think about "making a monument." Part of the solution was to sheath the two ends of the Secretariat in unbroken, windowless walls of marble. But even here, Harrison & Co. were thinking of the things that make a workshop workable. "The solid end walls," says Harrison, "also meant no struggles among U.N. staffers for corner offices."

With the basic designs agreed on, the designers went home. It then took Harrison and four of Manhattan's top construction outfits (Fuller, Turner, Walsh, Slattery) 4½ years to finish the job. At the peak, in 1949-50, an army of 2,500 workmen and experts swarmed over the U.N. Harrison's planning office alone kept more than 250 people busy day & night.

  1. 1
  2. 2
  3. 3
  4. 4
  5. 5
  6. 6
  7. 7