The United Nations Headquarters complex has long stood as an icon of postwar politics and architecture. The 39-story glass-and-steel Secretariat tower and the curving, white General Assembly building in Manhattan have become monuments with global significance. Built a half-century ago, their aesthetic may be lasting, but their performance has been in decline. Thus the U.N. is setting out on a five-year, $1.9 billion renovation. Participating architecture firms include Einhorn Yaffee Prescott and HLW. The project is being led by architect Michael Adler stein, formerly with the National Park Service, who came on board last year as executive director of the Capital Master Plan. In his office overlooking the site, ARCHITECT spoke with Adlerstein about the plans for the complex.

Will you describe the state of the United Nations headquarters now?

Michael Alderstein
Michael Alderstein

[The Secretariat is] a solid building, and a beautiful, iconic building, but it has slowly been allowed to run itself down. Some of the fixtures are so outdated that they [could] go directly from the demolition contractor to the museum. The building is insulated with asbestos, so when repairs are done, contractors come through in full-body space suits to clean up. The curtain wall is so leaky that workers on the outside of the building cleaning the windows can feel the air conditioning seeping out from a closed window during the summer. None of us has ever seen this kind of condition before.

You've worked on some impressive projects. How does this one compare?

When I was an architect with the national park system, I worked on restorations of Ellis Island, Independence Hall, the Gettysburg battlefield, and other important, historical projects. But there's nothing like the United Nations. It's recognized around the world. And unlike some other restoration projects, it is still operating as a functional governmental building. With the U.N., we're very respectful of its past and always cognizant of ongoing governmental functions.

So how do you approach this project, and what are some of the unique challenges in terms of project management?

With the previous plan, known as DC-5, a new building would have gone up in an adjacent lot, and everyone at the U.N. would have moved off site. That never made it past the state legislature in Albany. Now we are planning to move people in phases. There will be a swing space nearby, but people will move out on a rotational basis. So far, the employees are quite pleased. Because of the way the institution is organized, the project is subject to some strict terms. For example, the budget is approved by the U.N. Council, so we can't go over. We simply have to make budget, just as we have to make the schedule.

How does sustainability factor into this project?

It's very important. We will be lowering the building's energy consumption by at least 40 percent by introducing a wide range of green features. In fact, we are going to establish a model for what other older buildings should be doing. One of the most important elements will be to introduce a better, more efficient envelope. Not only will it dramatically improve insulation, it will also be completely blast-proof—which the current one is not.