Summer 2015

Artist Project / Who Is Jimmy Buckles?

Renovating the UN

Nancy Davenport

In 2008, the United Nations began a massive renovation of its headquarters in New York. For the first time since construction was completed in 1952, the entire East River complex was torn apart to replace the outdated and decayed electrical, heating, and ventilation systems. All of the UN’s iconic spaces were completely gutted, upgraded, and then reconstructed. The character-defining elements (including the interior decor of the General Assembly Hall and Security Council Chamber) were also restored and returned, as closely as possible, to their original state.

The renovation of the Conference Building, which houses the Security Council Chamber, happened to coincide with a series of intense debates in the General Assembly about organizational reform.[1] At the center of the debates was the Security Council and the urgent need to update its procedures and expand its membership. Although Security Council reform had been a recurring item on the General Assembly’s agenda for over twenty years, there was greater momentum during this session to overcome the deadlock. A new initiative was launched to reform the Security Council at the very same time that its chamber was being physically torn apart.

There is no need to reiterate all the ways that the UN has failed to live up to its proclaimed principles, nor how often the architecture has been criticized as embodying these failures. In his 1953 review of the new headquarters, for example, Lewis Mumford wrote about the building’s functional limitations—how it did not make the necessary provisions for extension, change of purpose, and future development. He wrote: “In the Assembly Building, as in the Conference Building, the future is frozen solidly in the form of the present.”[2]

In 2011, I began to photograph the Conference Building. Initially, I planned to work only for the duration of the debate on Security Council reform but the project expanded and I returned to document the renovation at regular intervals over a period of three years. For most of the photographs, I focused on the midpoints of construction—for example, when the Security Council Chamber was stripped down to its skeleton, with the base of the horseshoe table strangely exposed but the familiar form still recognizable. I focused on in-between moments, after the past was stripped away and before the past was reinstalled.

In addition to photographing the work being done, I also recorded and transcribed interviews with various people at the UN headquarters, including delegates, interpreters, cleaners, and construction workers.[3] The following pages, excerpted from a larger book project, focus on a football betting pool and a legendary transgression.

Subscribe to access our entire archive.
Log In and read it now.