UN HQ goes from blue to green in huge facelift

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A silent killer that stalked Nikita Khrushchev, Yasser Arafat, Fidel Castro and other world leaders as they gave historic speeches has been exhumed from the United Nations headquarters.

Enough asbestos to bury a football field in more than five meters (16 feet) of lethal blue dust has been extracted from the building during a $2-billion plus renovation aiming to turn it into a clean, green Manhattan landmark, according to the chief architect.

World leaders who gather at the annual UN debate next week will see a gleaming modernist skyscraper, far from the gutted building they visited last year.

Tinted windows put on the outside and office occupancy sensors inside will help cut energy use by half. Rainwater harvesting and low-flow toilets will reduce water consumption by nearly two thirds. Carbon emissions will be cut by 45 percent.

And for the stylists, the building's 1950s and sixties fake-leather naugahyde furniture has been brought back to life to give some floors the air of a "Mad Men" set.

The East River tower, designed by an international team including Brazil's Oscar Niemeyer and French-Swiss legend Le Corbusier, is marking its 60th anniversary and has long needed an injection of architectural botox.

A white plastic sheet covers the leaking General Assembly dome, which will be the next stage of the project.

The headquarters was built at a time when asbestos was ubiquitous, according to Michael Adlerstein, the preservation architect leading the diplomatic and technical exploit.

"It was put on like mayonnaise. It was put on every pipe, every wall," he told AFP.

Had Soviet leader Khrushchev banged his shoe a bit harder during his angry 1960 speech to the General Assembly, had Palestinian icon Arafat fired the gun he held in his landmark 1974 address, the asbestos might have loosened.

But Adlerstein, who has also worked on the renovation of the nearby Statue of Liberty and of the Taj Mahal in India, stressed that the dust has been taken out in an "absolutely safe" operation that passed thousands of air quality tests.

The dust notorious for causing mesothelioma cancer is just one of many challenges tackled. There was also the task of getting debris out and hundreds of construction workers in each day, all while presidents and ministers carried on daily meetings.

"The Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island are wonderful monuments, but unlike the UN you could close them, you could do the work," said Adlerstein.

Electric and water pipes have regularly been cut by accident as the UN Security Council and other bodies meet. "You get quite an abrupt reaction from the people who are trying to run a meeting and their power goes off. It is far more complicated than anything I have attempted to do in terms of an historic site," he added.

The Security Council moved to a temporary home in the basement. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon was exiled to a prefabricated office in the grounds of the complex.

Now the around 3,300 UN staff are moving back into the 39-floor skyscraper floor by floor. By next week, some 1,100 will be in place. Ban should be back in his 38th floor office in November. The Security Council will return to its historic chamber in February.

Norway, which decorated the 1952 Council chamber, is again providing fabric and wood for the refurbishment of the horseshoe-shaped chamber where wars have been started and averted.

The table and UN and national flags will go back in their same places. "It will have new electronics, there will be video-conferencing and other hi-tech opportunities, but basically it will be the same room," said the architect.

Russia is renewing the Council consultations room that it paid for in 1952 and where decades of secret talks have since been held. China, Turkey, the Netherlands, Denmark and more than a dozen other countries are decorating lounges, hallways and other rooms in the building.

"The finished product will be quite a wonderful reflection of the way the UN looked in 1952," Adlerstein said.

To bolster its green credentials, new air conditioning, water and heating systems have been put in. Specially tinted glass will keep the air cooler in New York's sweltering summers and warmer in the long winters.

Nearly all the old glass and other debris has been smashed up and recycled. A lot of furniture is being re-used. On the 27th floor for conference rooms, imitation leather easy chairs and lounge tables look fresh out of a 1960s Madison Avenue advertising agency.

The original mail chutes in which letters were dropped from each floor to the basement have been shined up and kept though they are not used any more.

Eighty percent of the old building was private offices, now 80 percent is open plan.

"The old office space was traditional American corporate office space of the early 1950s," said Werner Schmidt, a UN information officer and veteran employee of the building in both its states.

"The doors were closed and the walls were high. There were eight different kinds of office configuration depending on where you were in the hierarchy. You had a big window or a small window or no window at all."

Adlerstein believes Le Corbusier and Neimeyer would approve of the work. "We have respected their design intent, we have respected their design execution. The historic character defining areas of the UN, the big hallways, the major rooms will look exactly the way they did in 1952."

Would Khrushchev and the others approve? The UN was also notorious as a center for Cold War spying in the 1950s and 1960s with certain rooms rife with bugs.

"We don't worry about that," said Adlerstein. "The building is scanned and screened by the security department before the occupants come back in.

"There are, I'm told, benefits to eavesdropping. Secrets are dangerous. We are doing things in a very safe way, and whatever happens after we have finished the project, will happen."