UNITED NATIONS — The U.N. secretary-general and top diplomats made a groundbreaking move Monday to update and reform the world body -- or at least its antiquated headquarters.
Wielding shiny silver spades and wearing U.N. blue construction helmets, Ban Ki-moon and 16 other officials broke ground on the U.N.'s North Lawn to mark the beginning of a five-year, nearly $2-billion renovation.
The gleaming edifice on the East River has hardly been updated since its completion in 1952 by a team of architects including Swiss-born Le Corbusier and Brazil's Oscar Niemeyer.
The ceilings shed asbestos, the walls have lead paint and the dome of the General Assembly drips rain on diplomats' heads. Much of the building's machinery is obsolete, and craftsmen build their own replacement parts in workshops in the basement. Technically international territory, the U.N. has been exempt from New York fire and safety codes, and during a courtesy inspection last year, it racked up 866 violations.
Over five years, the building's interior will be gutted and rebuilt in a greener, more efficient and modern manner. But the U.N.'s gleaming blue-tinted exterior won't be changed, said New York architect Michael Adlerstein, who took over the project's management when the previous director got fed up with dealing with the U.N. system. Adlerstein previously renovated New York's Statue of Liberty and consulted on the preservation of India's Taj Mahal.
Most of the 4,700 U.N. staffers will move in phases to a nearby office building, and heads of state will attend the annual General Assembly in a giant temporary building where the lawn now is.
The Security Council will continue to hold meetings in the main U.N. building throughout the construction and will be shielded from asbestos and debris, contractors promised.
The U.N. has been debating where and how to move its headquarters for nearly 10 years, as costs have spiraled. Among the options were moving it onto a cruise ship anchored in the East River, into a giant circus tent, into the Brooklyn Navy Yard or -- as some critics suggested -- out of the country altogether.
Former U.S. Ambassador John R. Bolton once said that if the U.N. lost its top 10 floors, "it wouldn't make one bit of difference." But that was a potshot at the world body's inefficiency, not its architecture.
As one of the world's slowest bureaucracies lost opportunities in one of the world's hottest real estate markets, the Secretariat decided to erect the temporary building on the lawn.
"Spring is a time of rebirth," Ban said as he prepared to pick up his shovel. "Today we turn the soil which the United Nations stands on to mark the rebirth, or renovation, of our headquarters," he said.