Tuesday, September 16, 2014

UNESCO's headquarters in Paris: a promenade to Peace



UNESCO is best known for world heritage sites,  which is only one of UNESCO’s many programs.  The root of all these programs is a commitment between 195 Member States to contribute to peace and security by promoting cooperation in the fields of education,  culture and science.  To steer this global initiative,  Member States built a headquarters in Paris:  an outstanding architectural statement containing an art collection of exceptional diversity and symbolism.


The first function of the building is to host the staff of the United Nations – the “Secretariat” – that helps the 195 countries work together in intergovernmental programs.  Secondly, the building has 12 large meeting rooms where representatives from Member States periodically meet to discuss the strategy and to oversee the organization’s work.  The commitment guiding this work,  laid down in UNESCO’s Constitution[1],  starts as follows:  “Since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defenses of peace must be constructed.”  This sentence is inscribed in 10 languages on a stone wall in the Square of Tolerance,  which was inaugurated on May 1,  1996 in tribute to Yitzhak Rabin,  the former Israeli Prime Minister assassinated a few months earlier.  For symbolic reasons,  the Israeli artist Dani Karavan carved the Arab and Hebrew versions on the top,  next to each other. 


The Square of Tolerance. (Copyright UNESCO)


Angel of Nagasaki
Paradoxically,  UNESCO’s “house of peace” is surrounded by avenues named after French war heros Suffren,  Löwendal,  De Saxe and Ségur.  It is also located right across from the Military Academy,  where the young Napoleon Bonaparte was taught the art of war that he later put into practice on many battlefields.  UNESCO is the exact mirror image of this Academy.  It aims to prevent new wars by “the wide diffusion of culture and the education of humanity,”  thus vaccinating society against the devastating effects of “the propagation,  through ignorance and prejudice,  of the doctrine of the inequality of men and races.”  One of the most powerful reminders of this commitment is probably the “Angel of Nagasaki.”  It is an Angel’s head that was part of a small church in Nagasaki that miraculously survived when the atomic bomb destroyed the city and the church on August 9,  1945. 
Nagasaki Angel: This fragment of a church in Nagasaki destroyed by the atomic bomb was donated to UNESCO in 1976,  in Paris,  on the occasion of its 30th anniversary.  The contrast between its elegant frailness and the brutal devastation it was saved from,  make it a poignant sign of hope for mankind’s future. (Copyright UNESCO).


Japanese garden
Nagasaki’s angel overlooks one of the most appreciated parts of the complex:  the Japanese garden.  Like the building itself,  the garden was designed as a promenade in a unique environment where the visitor can find inspiration.  The promenade starts at the Fountain of Peace:  a big stone from which water pours over the word “Peace” carved in it.  It is written in mirror writing,  so it can only be read in its reflection on the water in which the stone stands.  This symbolizes the complementarity of the “hard” and the “soft” forces composing reality.  The visitor then crosses the water on stepping stones,  a purifying passage that is supposed to take him to another level of awareness and thinking.  The American-Japanese designer Isamu Noguchi said that as the delegates walk through it “it is hoped that they will experience a release from the tensions and the prejudices of the moment giving rise to a fuller and more impassionate consideration of every problem.[2]  This happens automatically he said,  because “to enjoy it,  one must walk in it,  and thereby perceive the relative value of all things.[3]  Once you enter the garden,  there is indeed no overview and no absolute truth.  There are only paths and perspectives that symbolize human diversity,  which they slowly hide and reveal to the visitor as he walks on. 

Japanese Garden: This sculptural landscape is an encounter between east and west like its designer Isamu Noguchi,  whose father was a famous Japanese poet and his mother an American writer.  Although the ideas upon which the landscape was based hardly stem from the conventional Asian mold,  the UNESCO community has always referred to it as the jardin japonais (UNESCO Copyright).


Meditation Space
From the Japanese garden the promenade continues towards the Meditation Space by the Japanese architect Tadao Ando.  This landscape also takes the visitor on a winding path,  but not in a hide-and-reveal experience with nature like the Japanese garden.  Instead the path – a zig-zagging ramp – brings the visitor above a floor of granite slabs that were radiated during the bombing of Hiroshima on August 6,  1945.  Above this rough granite surface,  that had to be decontaminated before transportation to Paris,  the visitor is called to meditate upon the destructive power of mankind.  Further down,  the ramp leads inside a 6.5 meter high concrete cylinder.  Here the visitor suddenly finds himself in a small confined space which conveys a strong feeling of intimacy with the other visitors.  Ando created this confined space to symbolize the need to go beyond the differences of race,  religion or nationality in order to build peaceful cohabitation on earth.  This peace inducing effect is strengthened by the round form of the space,  which keeps the visitors focused on the fact that they – literally – stand closely together.  This feeling of “togetherness” is further enhanced by the absence of windows.  Ando only created a narrow opening in the ceiling allowing a thin curtain of light along the walls,  to convey the spirituality propitious to a place of meditation.
Meditation Space: The self-taught Japanese architect Tadao Ando created this space for the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the adoption of the organization’s Constitution.  The wall fragments surrounding the site alienate the visitor even more from the Parisian context,  plunging him in a neutral,  international space that every United Nations agency is by nature (UNESCO Copyright).
The adventure of Nervi’s portico
The ceremonial entrance on the other side of the building also has an initiating,  even slightly religious effect on the visitor when he passes underneath it.  It was designed by the Italian architect Pier Luigi Nervi,  the “concrete wizard” who also designed the 72 monumental concrete pillars on which the building rests.[4]  He designed the building with Bernard Zehrfuss (France) and Marcel Breuer (United States).  Contractors were first reluctant to build this very technical and top-heavy portico,  because no calculation could confirm that it would hold.  Nervi argued that no mathematician had ever been able to demonstrate that the construction of the dome of Saint Peter was possible,  but the masons had gone ahead and built it.[5]  The portico ended up being built and has survived without a crack until today.

UNESCO's VIP entrance: The concrete portico by Pier Luigi Nervi constitutes the ceremonial entrance with a shape that suggests a nun’s winged coif.  It was almost never built because its top-heavy construction was deemed too uncertain.


This adventure is illustrative of UNESCO’s peace building mission,  which is sometimes criticized for being utopian and outright impossible.  The international community however has a moral responsibility to look after peace and the common welfare of mankind.  It can only do this as a community,  because no country would be able all by itself to achieve what UNESCO does with help of all Member States:  support governments to ensure education for all children in the world,  help set up tsunami warning systems which save thousands of lives,  gather the necessary expertise and funds to save the threatened cultural treasures in Mali and Syria,  and help NGO’s,  governments and journalists to keep the free flow of ideas by word and image alive.  To some,  all these precious contributions to peace and security seem a hopeless adventure just like Nervi’s portico,  but fortunately the international community adopted some desirable long-term goals in 1945 and put the builders to work.  This is why we have almost 1000 world heritage sites all over the world today,  which would not benefit from the same level of prestige and protection if UNESCO had not created the World Heritage Convention.

Cultural heritage and architecture directly speak to people
UNESCO’s Constitution states that peace is only sustainable if it is founded on the “intellectual and moral solidarity of mankind.”  UNESCO has been famously successful in raising this solidarity with regard to world heritage sites,  by calling upon the bond and the responsibility people naturally feel with regard to these outstanding examples of cultural and natural heritage.  These irreplaceable jewels,  like the Grand Canyon National Park and the city of Venice,  directly speak to people because everybody knows what it is to have something so precious and irreplaceable that it needs to be preserved for future generations.

UNESCO’s building was designed to address its users in a similar direct way,  as human beings susceptible to the symbolism of words,  images and spatial forms.  The majestic forms of its soaring “Room I” for example help raise both the awareness of the challenges and the ambition of the audience to affront them.  They intend to motivate the decision-makers like the words of the former Swedish Secretary-General of the United Nations Dag Hammarskjöld:  “Never measure the height of a mountain until you have reached the top.  Then you will see how low it was.[6]  Delegates are also inspired by the buildings’ art collection.  Firstly because the art works come from almost all Member States,  making their representatives feel at home and more committed to the organization.  Secondly, the art works subtly remind the delegates of the invisible responsibilities they carry with them in the hallways between the conference rooms.  Like the painting “Mothers and Children” by the Ecuadorian painter Oswaldo Guyasamin.  It portrays mothers that seem to be petrified by the idea of letting their children face the world full of dangers they live in.  The mere size of the canvas makes the scene even more intimidating:  almost 5 x 6 meters.  It hangs in front of Room X, where UNESCO’s Executive Board meets every six months. So when delegates go there to discuss the educational challenges responsible for the suffering of Guyasamin’s children,  they have to pass in front of them several times a day.

Picasso’s Fall of Icarus
In a similar way,  delegates are addressed on their way to Room II,  where the Science Commission meets every two years.  They pass in front of a huge painting by Picasso called “The Fall of Icarus”,  referring to the mythological figure Icarus who thought he could fly close to the sun with his wings made of wax and feathers.  His fall reminds mankind of the limits and risks that came with the evolution of science,  as demonstrated in Hiroshima and Nagasaki,  and more recently in Fukushima.  The story goes that when Picasso came back to the building to hang up his painting,  he noticed that in the meantime a bridge had been built in front of it.  Known for his Latin temperament,  he became so angry about this bridge partly blocking the view on his 9.10 meter high painting,  he refused to sign it.  

The Fall of Icarus: When the painting was commissioned by UNESCO,  Picasso was given the title “the Fall of Icarus.”  Later on,  Picasso himself maintained that it represents “just people bathing,”  adding that “it is meaningless to look for things in paintings,  what counts is finding things” (UNESCO Copyright).
Save us from hell
Since the Fifties it is often said that the United Nations was not created to bring us to heaven,  but to save us from hell.  Half a century later, skepticism seems to reign.  But if the United Nations were abolished it would be reinvented the next day,  because there is no other credible alternative where the entire international community can sit down to tackle challenges and threats that have become global.  UNESCO’s headquarters magnificently embodies that necessity,  just as the need to understand each other,  to preserve each other’s history and dignity,  and the incredible diversity of humanity.

UNESCO’s headquarters can be visited upon request, by writing to visits@unesco.org

Twitter: @Oosterenvan


Other photos:

Prometheus bringing fire to mankind: This fresco was executed in situ by Rufino Tamayo (Mexico).  It could have illustrated the terms of reference of UNESCO’s World Commission on the Ethics of Scientific Knowledge and Technology COMEST.  Prometheus is the figure that defies the gods and gives fire to humanity,  an act that enabled progress and civilization but also entailed many risks that cannot be taken for granted (UNESCO Copyright).

Mothers and Children: Oswaldo Guyasamin (Ecuador) spent a large part of his life painting the misery,  the exploitation,  the oppression,  the dictatorship and the racism he observed during his travels through Latin America and the Caribbean.  When he died in 1999,  he was posthumously awarded the UNESCO International José Martí Prize for “an entire life of work for peace”
(UNESCO Copyright).


Room X: The only large conference room where Member States can sit in a circle, preferred by many as it enables the participants to see each other.  It symbolizes what UNESCO essentially is:  a table the United Nations set up in Paris where Member States can take a seat to address common challenges in the fields of education,  science,  culture,  communication and information (UNESCO Copyright).


Angel of Nagasaki

Japanese Garden

Meditation Space

Mothers and Children

Fall of Icarus

Prometheus bringing fire to mankind

Nervi’s portico



[2] Marc Treib (2003),  Noguchi in Paris:  The UNESCO Garden,  p. 53.
[3] Ibid. p. 123.
[4] Christine Desmoulins (2012),  Unesco,  le palais méconnu,  in:  Architectural Digest,  Sept-Oct 2012,  pp. 74-80.
[5] UNESCO (2009),  UNESCO:  The seeds of peace,  p. 26
[6] Dag Hammarskjöld (1973),  Markings,  Alfred A. Knopf,  p. 7.

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