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1953 – 1958
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Article last edited by Maria Thuroczy on
May 16th, 2013
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In 1951, the UNESCO planning committee had studied the feasibility of establishing its new international headquarters in the 7th arrondissement of Paris, facing the Place de Fontenoy, on a historic north-south axis with Jacques-Ange Gabriel’s Ecole Militaire (1768-1773), Gustave Eiffel’s Universal Exposition Tower (Tour Eiffel) (1889), and Jacques Carlu, Louis-Hippolyte Boileau and Léon Azéma’s Palais de Chaillot (1935-1937), across the Seine.
ControversyInitially, Le Corbusier had been recommended as principal architect by the Brazilian delegate Paolo Carneiro. However, U.S. State Department representative Jacobs vetoed the recommendation because of the French architect’s much publicized confrontations with Wallace Harrison during 1947-1948 over the American’s alleged artistic exploitation and inaccurate execution of Le Corbusier’s original plans for the United Nations Headquarters in New York. This scandal, and Le Corbusier’s notoriously excessive financial demands, left some American members wary of future engagements, especially as the United States was to provide principal financing for the Paris construction.
The Advisory PanelIgnoring strong interventions on Le Corbusier’s behalf by Luis Sert, President of the Congrès International d’Architecture Moderne (CIAM), on 5 November 1951, the UNESCO Committee instead named Beaux-Arts-trained Eugène Beaudouin as provisional architect, with consultants Howard Robertson of England and Eero Saarinen of the United States. The Headquarters Committee simultaneously appointed an International Panel of Advisors, presided over by Walter Gropius, which included Rogers, Lucio Costa, Markelius, and Saarinen. Enjoined by Gropius to participate on the Advisory Committee and “to take the bitter pill,” Le Corbusier consented in February 1952. This panel unanimously rejected Beaudouin’s design proposals submitted in April.
Ignoring Gropius’ persistent promotion of Le Corbusier as sole principal architect, on 10 July 1952 the UNESCO Committee ultimately appointed Zehrfuss, Breuer, and Nervi as the official architect-engineer team, retaining the original Advisory Panel. The proposal submitted on 15 September 1952 contained a perspective of the General Secretariat Building raised on pilotis.
Le CorbusierAt that moment, given his visible engagement, Le Corbusier must have still believed in the potential for influence in his advisory position to move the project forward. His belief was short-lived: his role proved nominal. Rarely was Le Corbusier solicited during the design and construction process from 1952 to 1958. Correspondence at the Foundation Le Corbusier reveals rancour and condescension toward the official team whose work he considered banal and from which he dissociated himself.
The BuildingsThe main building which houses the Headquarters of UNESCO was finally inaugurated on November 3rd 1958. The Y-shaped design was invented by the three architects. Nicknamed the ‘three-pointed star’, the entire edifice stands on seventy-two columns of concrete piling.
Three more buildings complete the headquarters site. The second building, known affectionately as the "accordion", holds the egg-shaped hall with a pleated copper ceiling where the plenary sessions of the General Conference are held. The third building is in the form of a cube. Lastly, a fourth construction consists of two office floors hollowed out below street level, around six small sunken courtyards. The buildings, which contain many remarkable works of art, are open to the public.