In the second installment of the UN Headquarters Renovation project in New York, we speak to Saskia Simon, senior architect at OMA, to hear more about how the team worked together and the project’s political peculiarities.
The team of Rem Koolhaas, Hella Jongerius, Irma Boom, Louise Schouwenberg and Gabriel Lester called the concept "RE-" - reusing and reinstating qualities of the original North Delegates’ Lounge of the UN building in New York.
Koolhaas assigned senior architect Saskia Simon to the project, which is a consortium of such big names that one may have envisioned a clash of artistic wills. By all accounts, however, the veritable glamour team of Dutch design have nothing but respect for one another and worked brilliantly as a group.
“We came together in a workshop setting throughout the design process and lay on the table everything we had been working on,” says Simon. “The general shape of things kept building and we continued to fine-tune until we came up with the current plan. All the ideas fed into the eventual result.”
The process worked, according to Simon, because everyone focussed on the larger vision and everyone was given room to specialize. “We all know how to think and criticize intelligently,” says Simon. “Everyone has a specialty and all the respective knowledge and views reinforced the eventual outcome.”
The line Jongerius designed into the carpets, for example, was taken up by Koolhaas and Simon and incorporated into the architecture. “That is how it generally worked,” Simon says. “Bouncing things back and forth until we had an integrated concept.”
Boom led the way when it came to graphics and Jongerius controlled furniture design and colour. “It was fascinating to hear her talk about colour, its history, and what pigments are no longer used,” says Simon.
Simon already knew Irma Boom who does a lot of work with OMA, but it was the first time she had met and worked with Jongerius. “I think we all benefited from hearing each other’s opinions. Gabriel too comes from cinema and photography so could offer a whole different perspective.”
Not that this was an easy project. In the end it was complex.
“But that was to do with how the job was commissioned,” Simon explains. “We won the original competition: a special committee was appointed to judge the entries and they stayed on for the schematic design phase. However, our commissioning client was the Dutch government, with its own knowledge, consultants and opinions. They were our bridge to the UN.”
So there was a team of experts overseeing everything in New York and a parallel set of eyes in the Netherlands. Given that everyone involved in that tiered process is political and that the feedback was never direct, misunderstanding and confusion was inevitable.
"The Dutch government's description of how the lounge is used did not always cover the full extent of the requirements," Simon says. "It wasn't until we communicated directly with everyone from the various departments in New York that we discovered that our design didn't always exactly match their requirements for the space. In the end though we managed to adjust the design to meet the requirements without making concessions."
One of the original proposals was to remove the mezzanine that was added in the 70s. This was accepted. Another proposal was to put a different mezzanine near the entrance. That was rejected because it meant an intrusive structural change that affected the original structure too much.
“We were sorry at first, but realized later that we had a vey strong concept without it,” says Simon.
The Dutch design team was surprised by the UN’s opinions on acoustics and particularly how they wanted to limit the ways people could interact. “Initially we had a mirror-finishing on part of one wall, but we were told it was a problem because mirrors are simply not allowed in the UN building,” Simon says. “We proved the finish was not creating unwanted sightlines, but they still didn’t want it."
When they did get direct meetings in New York, they were unlike anything Simon had every experienced. “The meetings were great fun and surprisingly dense,” she says. "We had a presentation and six meetings in one day, ranging from Food and Beverages, the structural engineers to the Captain of safety. Everybody had concerns and needs. Some people were worried about the promotion of alcohol in the bar and others about sniper attacks and bombs. Everything had to be considered.”
Budgets have been cut and inevitable production issues have delayed completion, which was originally scheduled for September, but the Dutch design dream team is unanimously happy with the results. “I can’t wait to see how it turns out,” says Simon.
Images: Small top page Polder Sofa, large at top overall image, small from top before clock, after clock, before space, after space, top view, bar curtain, bar, the south wall.
Points of sale
( 2 Votes, average: 5 out of 5)
click to vote
- Amsterdam Fashion Week 2013
- Dutch Design Week 2012
- Milan 2012
- Amsterdam Fashion Week 2012
- Dutch Design Week 2011
- Amsterdam International Fashion Week 2010
- Amsterdam International Fashion Week 2011
- Dutch Design Week 2010
- Dutch Design Double 2010
- Milan 2010
- Design.nl 100th Issue Favourites
- Dutch Design Week 2009
- Dutch Design Double 2009
- Milan 2009
- Amsterdam International Fashion Week 2009
- Going Out - Restaurants, bars, cafes, clubs and hotels
- Graphic Design Festival 2008
- Dutch Design Week 2008
- Retail Therapy - Where to buy Dutch design
- FreeDesigndom 2008
- Milan 2008
- Amsterdam International Fashion Week 2008
- Design.nl Tokyo favourites