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The Palais des Nations, victim of Geneva's "Tower bashing" Featured

Jean-Claude Pallas
Jean-Claude Pallas

By Jean-Claude Pallas, former building manager at the Palais des Nations

A little more than six months after the end of the Second World War, Geneva was chosen as the European headquarters of the United Nations on February 12, 1946. The former League of Nations was dissolved on April 18 and on August 1 of the same year its properties (essentially the Palais des Nations and the villas La Pelouse, La Fenêtre, Le Chêne and Les Feuillantines) were transferred to the United Nations. The development of the United Nations was very rapid and the Palais des Nations, which was opened in February 1936, soon became too small to accommodate new organizations, despite its imposing size and its 577 offices.

On July 2, 1948, Geneva was also chosen as the headquarters of the new specialized agency, the World Health Organization (WHO), created on April 7. In August 1948, WHO already had 160 staff members in temporary offices in Lake Success in New York (the foundation stone for the United Nations headquarters was not laid until a year later, on 24 October 1949).

14 m2 per staff member

WHO's estimates increased rapidly from 300 offices (4,200 m2) in August 1948 to 400 (5,600 m2, on the generous basis of 14 m2 per staff member) by the end of 1949 and increased again thereafter. The Health Organization was allowed to occupy 106 offices in the Palais, but only for three years. It was therefore necessary to consider very quickly a first enlargement of the Palais, which was carried out in 1950-1952 (the second one was carried out between 1968 and 1973 and a third one is being completed).

Given the urgency and the bad memory of the inter-Member State competition of 1927 (378 projects to be examined, difficult and debated choices...) it was decided not to launch an architectural competition for this first enlargement. A first project was established by the United Nations building service in September 1948, it foresaw the closing of the Secretariat courtyard (Jura side). In October 1948 Jean Erb (Swiss, 1904-1984) made a study, at the request of WHO, and proposed a new wing on the Jura side, on the P2 parking lot (connection at the level of staircase 1). At the end of 1948 the study of the closure of the Secretariat courtyard was taken up by the architect Lacôte.

However, in the context of this article, only the project of the architect Jacques Carlu (1890-1976) will be examined in more detail because it is the one that was retained by both the UN and the WHO. Carlu was consulted at the beginning of 1949 to examine the possibilities of housing WHO in the Palais, either by creating new offices, or by recovering space wherever possible: halls, corridors and other premises, or by dividing certain rooms to transform them into offices.

Two tower projects

After an on-site study, the architect found that these possibilities were unfeasible and on March 30 he proposed a tower project, one of 100 m (25 floors, 500 offices), the second of a tower reduced to 80 m (400 offices). Carlu specified "as far as aesthetics are concerned, it seems to me that a building of about 100 m would not detract from the silhouette of the Palais. I would even dare to say that it would be a desirable addition. I don't think that the relative proximity of the airfield is an obstacle, especially since such a tower would serve, on the contrary, as a beacon and landmark.

"Rise to a certain minimum height"

The location chosen was the most judicious, for a high-rise construction, at the corner of the AC commission wing (connection between the Assembly and Council buildings, the tower is designated "building D", see site plan) which presented multiple advantages such as a central location and immediate proximity to the technical installations: boiler room, power station and telephone exchange, which facilitated and considerably reduced the cost of connections. Carlu also specified "a very thorough study of the problem showed me that a building in height composed in vertical element must, to obey considerations of a very imperative aesthetic order and that one must respect under penalty of unpleasantly disfiguring the general silhouette, rise to a certain minimum height above the highest point (building of the Assembly). This minimum height led me to set the number of useful floors at 18 with a crown treated as a decorative motif and intended to house service rooms (elevator mechanisms, tanks, etc.).

Jacques Carlu (1890-1976) was already an internationally renowned architect at that time. A former student of the Beaux-Arts in Paris, he won the first Grand Prix de Rome in 1919. He moved to the United States in 1924 where he was a professor of design at the prestigious MIT in Boston until 1933, when he set up an agency in New York. In 1937 he was appointed chief architect for the construction of the Palais de Chaillot (his project, elaborated with L.H. Boileau and L. Azéma, had been chosen), the major building of the 1937 "Exposition internationale des arts et techniques appliquées" (also known as the "Exposition universelle de Paris"). He then assumed the functions of Chief Architect and Curator of the Palais de Chaillot.

Working alongside Trygve Lie

In 1950 he became the artistic advisor of the first Secretary General of the UN, the Norwegian Trygve Lie, for the interior architecture and decoration of the United Nations headquarters, under construction in New York. His brother Jean (1900-1997) was a very famous designer of posters in the Art Deco style. His wife Anne (née Pecker) was an artist of great renown in the field of mural paintings and two of her works, large allegorical compositions of 4 m x 7 m, adorn the walls of the Galerie des Pas-Perdus of the Palais des Nations "La Guerre" and "La Paix" (gift of J. Carlu to the UN in 1971).

A location for the tower, the "Bâtiment D"

David Glaser, reporter geneveMonde
D building, other name for the tower project
D building, other name for the tower project

On April 6, 1949 Adrian Pelt, Deputy Secretary General of the UN in New York, forwarded this project to W. Moderow, the first DG of the UN in Geneva, with a favorable opinion: "My first impression is that this plan deserves further study and that it offers certain advantages. To what extent the "skyscraper" could fit in with the environment is ultimately difficult to answer. Yet it seems to offer a bold contrast to the horizontal structure of the Palace and could become a desirable addition, as Mr. Carlu argues."

A week later the plans were sent to the Director of WHO and to the Swiss authorities, Councillor Philippe Zutter of the DPF and State Councillor Louis Casaï of the DTP. Ph. Zutter remarked, "The construction of the tower is of particular concern to the people of Geneva and I am sure that the project you have also sent to Mr. Casaï will create a sensation in the Geneva State Council. The WHO agreed to the tower but wanted 30 offices per floor instead of 20.

This tower project was new for Geneva, but it was not an incongruous novelty. It is sufficient to recall the architectural competition of 1926-1927. Of the 27 winning projects, 6 included towers, 2 of which exceeded 100 m. These were the projects that received "second mentions".

The project No. 308, by Dutch architects Julius Maria Luthmann and Hendrik Wouda

The project No. 411 by the Danish architect Anton Rosen (1859-1928).

Vago's project (no. 431, one of the "nine ex aequo prizes") also included a substantial tower. Vago was one of the five architects selected to draw up the final design for the Palais (along with Broggi, Flegenheimer, Lefèvre and Nénot).

On the other hand, in 1936 - thirteen years before Carlu's project - the famous Swiss architect Maurice Braillard (1879-1965) declared "that there were too many horizontals in Geneva and that it was necessary to create imposing verticals". At that time, he planned a 12-story tower on the Boulevard Helvétique.

David Glaser, reporter geneveMonde
A flattened tower in place of a 100 meter building
A flattened tower in place of a 100 meter building

We will see later that this project, which satisfied both the United Nations (New York and Geneva) and the WHO, not only caused a sensation within the Geneva State Council, but also aroused a great deal of emotion in the Geneva Landerneau, and beyond, which led to its abandonment, after many discussions, but with a small reservation for the future... because projects to raise Building D (the "flattened" tower) were considered in 1963-64 and 1982.

Jean-Claude Pallas

Message from the author : "Author of Histoire et architecture du Palais des Nations (1924-2001). I am preparing a new and very well documented book (still on a voluntary basis) on the history and description of the Ariana and the outbuildings of the Palais des Nations (essentially the villas La Pelouse, La Fenêtre, Les Feuillantines and Le Bocage) which will also be published by the UNOG. I am therefore very interested in the history of Geneva. I also contribute to two local history magazines in Charente, France, where I live."

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