Waiting for a facelift

Observations on united nations

On his recent trip to America Tony Blair declared that after 60 years it was time to revamp the United Nations, which, like other world institutions, had lost sight of its guiding purposes. As anyone who has been there knows, those years have taken their toll not only on the standing of the UN, but on the bricks, mortar and fittings of its iconic home.

Refreshed over the years by little more than the occasional lick of paint, the slim structure of the Secretariat building, which served as such a glamorous landmark in Hitchcock's North by Northwest, has become a vertical slum. The carpets in its miles of corridors have shrunk and faded. The plaster on its sweeping walls has gone live and needs cutting out and replacing. Even the great chambers in which the General Assembly and the Security Council convene desperately need an overhaul.

Designed by a team including the heady combination of Le Corbusier, Oscar Niemeyer, Sven Markelius and Wallace K Harrison, the elegant tower, 39 storeys high and just 72 feet wide, was completed in 1952. For once, modernism set to a public purpose did not result in gargantuan brutality, but 60 years is a long time in the life of a working building.

Everyone there knows it. Even John Bolton, the US ambassador to the UN who once remarked that nothing much would be lost if the tower's top ten floors (containing Kofi Annan and his secretariat) were removed, concedes that the building is frustratingly archaic. The thousands of diplomats, bureaucrats and journalists who work there every day scarcely know where to begin: while the plumbing is furring up, the wiring is pre-computer. For others in America, however, the decay of the UN's fabric offers an opportunity to snipe and harry.

New Yorkers aren't always happy with this cosmopolitan presence in their midst, some politicians begrudging that the 18-acre site is outside their jurisdiction and that UN diplomats often don't pay their parking fines and sometimes treat the city with contempt. Many New Yorkers also dislike the UN's frequent condemnations of Israel, regarding them as evidence of anti-Semitism.

A more robust faction, egged on by Bolton and with support in both US political parties, aims to hinder the world organisation at every turn. Simcha Felder, a Democrat legislator from Brooklyn, is typical. "They hate the United States and they hate all of our allies," he says. "What are we doing helping a body that hates us?"

Earlier this year legislators in the state capital of Albany and town planners in New York's City Hall proposed transferring the UN's myriad workers to a new tower while renovations take place. But opponents of the UN intervened and a $600m loan towards the project - favoured by both New York's governor, George Pataki, and its mayor, Michael Bloomberg - was peremptorily withdrawn, as was permission to erect a temporary structure on a city park.

This was a shot across the bows. "The mayor should always use the bully-pulpit of his position," demanded Anthony Weiner, a Democratic mayoral hopeful. "The UN probably won't listen any other time but now."

The UN bounced back last month with its own plan to take the renovation bit by bit, using temporary premises built on its own land for interim accommodation. But then the project manager suddenly resigned in a huff, blaming bureaucratic delays, shortage of money and the failure of UN members to be decisive. His departure heartened the local anti-UN faction, which is beginning to feel it has the international body over a barrel.