The Jet Set UN Tour
Around the World in 45 Minutes at the United Nations

739 The U.N. building, and a U.N. Guide, interpreting a land mine display. CLUI photo by Erik Knutzen
THERE AREN'T TOO MANY PLACES in America where a few footsteps transports a visitor to international territory. One of them is the United Nations, a building complex former Pentagon official Richard Perle characterized as the “Looming Chatterbox on the Hudson” (though he got his geography wrongit’s actually on the East River).

Since the day the U.N. opened in 1952, accommodations have been made for visiting tourists with an interest in the architecture of international diplomacy. Reaching a peak of 1.2 million visitors in 1964, U.N. tour attendance is now down to around 400,000 a year. Tour groups are led by an international crew of guides, a job which used to be limited to women between the age of 20 and 30, but now includes a few men. Since the 1950s the guides have always sported uniforms resembling those worn by airline stewardesses. After diversions into mini-skirts in the 1960s and a Benetton designed 1980s outfit, the U.N. tour guide look is back to vintage air-travel chic with a blazer/skirt combo designed by the Italian fashion house Mondrian and accompanied by Italian shoes by Valleverde.

Continuing the air-travel vibe, to visit the international territory of the U.N. one must first go through airport style security in a tent just outside the conference building. After purchasing a ticket, one can wander the General Assembly Lobby, which hosts changing exhibits. During a visit in April the displays included large photographs about the United Nations Food Program sponsored by Benetton and a number of smaller exhibits including a gift from the Islamic Republic of Iran of silk carpet portraits of the Secretary-Generals.

After meeting my guide, a young Brazilian woman fluent in five languages, our small group stepped through a glass door and into the architectural wonderworld of utopian modernism that is the U.N. compound. Guides receive daily briefings on the current activities of the various U.N. divisions, and the tour consists mostly of discussion of the U.N.’s current policies and goals. It is a tour not so much of a place as of an idea, a “tomorrowland” of international cooperation enveloped in a bubble of 50s modernism. It’s an optimistic architecture meant to evoke a new beginning after the horrors of World War II and fated to serve as a backdrop for the cold war. At once horribly dated and retro-hip, the place exudes a utopian ambiance that seems quaint considering its recent troubled history.

668 The Iranian silk carpet portraits of U.N. leaders. CLUI photo by Erik Knutzen

Most of the large chambers are part of the tour with the exception of the Security Council, which is closed due to security. On our visit we passed through the Economic and Social Council chambers and the Trusteeship Council, both of which were in session. After quickly traversing exhibits on weapons of mass destruction, decolonization, land mines, and U.N. peacekeeping efforts, the guided tour ended with a question and answer session with our guide in the empty General Assembly Hall.

Once the Q & A concluded our guide dropped us off in the expansive public concourse, which includes a book store, post office, coffee shop, and souvenir shop selling U.N. logo coffee mugs, shot glasses, t-shirts, ties and key chains with the flags of each of the 191 U.N. member nations among many other novelties. A visit to the bookstore provides next summer’s beach reading for the policy wonk; Disarming Iraq by Hans Blix, Human Development Report 2003, or on the lighter side, The United Nations Women’s Guild Cookbook.

The international style U.N. building was designed by an international team of 11 architects (led by the American Wallace K. Harrison), and though it seems so, well, modern, it is now over 50 years old. The U.N. plans on temporarily relocating in 2007 while the 39 story secretariat building is upgraded. A recent New York Times story profiled the somewhat dilapidated condition of much of this modernist landmark. Asbestos, a lack of sprinklers, and outdated heating and air conditioning systems plague the complex, which will be refurbished with a proposed $1.2 billion loan in Bush’s 2005 budget. The Times story also noted “East River water is pumped into the building as a coolant and . . . workers had collected eels, blue claw crabs and bluefish from the basement filters to take home to cook.” Just think about that the next time Kofi Annan invites you to dinner.