All images by Nipun Prabhakar

In photos: Inside the United Nations headquarters building in New York

Nipun Prabhakar shares his photo essay of the UNHQ in New York in honour of the organisation’s 75th birthday.

2020 marks 75 years of the United Nations. It also marks one year since I experienced and documented its headquarters building in New York during my stay there. 

A controversial collaboration between 11 architects with Le Corbusier and Oscar Niemeyer, among others, under the leadership of Wallace K. Harrison, the United Nations headquarters building (UNHQ) is a huge complex (6.9 to 7.3ha) that overlooks the East River. Built in a former slaughterhouse district on the city’s East Side, it’s a masterpiece of its time and a symbol of not only peace and cooperation, but also authority and power. 

The land held by the UN is technically “extraterritorial” and independent, but it follows most US laws. The headquarters consists of three main buildings: the General Assembly building, the conference building and the 39-floor secretariat building.

While Niemeyer designed the International Style glass facade secretariat building, Corbusier designed the large volume, heavy concrete General Assembly building. 

Among the headquarters’ many critics, Frank Lloyd Wright dismissed the secretariat structure as “a deadpan box with no expression of the nature of what transpired in the building.” 

Regardless of Wright and others’ criticisms, the building was one of the world’s first attempts at such a giant collaboration: the most well-known architects of the time were brought together to create something unique. After long and never-ending discussions, ego clashes and debates, a refined design that included everyone’s thoughts and ideas was finally built.  

The following photo series was developed in 2019, and contains images that capture the architectural essence of the building.

A view of Niemeyer’s 39-floor Secretariat building
The north façade of the General Assembly building at the UN Headquarters, with the 17 sustainable development goals written at the pathway
‘Non-Violence’, also known as ‘The Knotted Gun’, is a bronze sculpture by Swedish artist Carl Fredrik Reuterswärd. It is an over-sized Colt Python .357 Magnum revolver with its muzzle tied in a knot. The sculpture can also be found on the UN stamps available at the post office
Visitor’s lobby with a replica of Sputnik, the world’s first satellite
Exhibition space at the visitor’s lobby overlooking the East River
Empire state building from inside the UNHQ
The seven-foot high statue of Poseidon at the visitor’s lobby at the UNHQis a gift from Greece to the United Nations; it is a replica of the original statue which stands in Athens. Until recently it was assumed that the original statue was of the god Zeus, but this has been corrected following new archaeological research
Designed by architect Arnstein Arneberg, the Security Council chamber was a gift from Norway to the UN. It includes a nine-by-five-metre mural painted by Norwegian Per Krogh on the chamber’s east wall. It’s one of the most recognised rooms in the world
The UN headquarters also has ‘ The Room of Quiet’, a meditation room which was planned by Dag Hammarskjöld, an economist and Secretary-General of the United Nations from 10 April, 1953 until 18 September, 1961. He wanted one room dedicated to “silence in the outward sense and stillness in the inner sense”
The Nagasaki Statue: The statue was in a Church in Nagasaki when the atomic bomb exploded in the city. It’s on display in the public viewing gallery
Dignitaries who were late for their session are waiting outside the General Assembly building
School children take a tour inside the building
The Trusteeship Council Chamber, originally designed by Danish architect Finn Juhl in 1952, was a gift from Denmark to the United Nations. In 2011, the chamber was renovated by the Government of Denmark. Interestingly, the Trusteeship Council’s task is to supervise the administration of 11 trust territories until they achieve self-determination. After the council completed its task in 1994, it decided to meet only when needed
Built between 2005 and 2010, the United States mission to the UN, designed by Gwathmey Siegel & Associates is situated just across the street from UNHQ
A view of the secretariat building from an apartment nearby

This article and photo series is by Nipun Prabhakar, a documentary photographer based in Kutch and Delhi. He works on long-term projects dealing with intersections of ideas, artifacts, built environments, and folklore. His practice is informed by his training and experience as an architect in situations that call for a contextual response to culture and geography. He was the Cornell South Asian fellow 2019 for his project on the Doors of Kathmandu. Read more by Nipun Prabhakar.

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