Not bad, huh? The UNESCO archives have been a mixed bag–lots more on the committee structure of the group deciding on the size of the furniture than on the layout of formwork boards for the ground floor piers. Still, that’s not a bad place to work, is it? Plenty of time to sit and stare at said formwork. And, it has to be said, UNESCO is an inspiring place to spend a morning. It’s full of people from all over the world doing good things–in the last week I’ve wandered through breakout sessions from conferences on genetic therapies in the developing world and international initiatives in space exploration. So even if I’m a bit short on hard data, it’s been no small thrill.
The story of the building’s conception is, like all things connected to the UN, complicated, and if I’ve lacked for formwork details I’ve found plenty of interesting–if entirely tangential–stuff on the architectural and political culture of the time. Nervi and Breuer got the job thanks to the presence of Ernesto Rogers and Walter Gropius on the panel of five architects charged with selecting the team. This came after a pitiful performance by a Parisian architect and after the committee changed the site–and changed it back again.
Lurking behind all of these shenanigans was Corbusier, who was on the selection panel, but who desperately wanted the job. He wrote UNESCO’s Director General regularly, touting his firm’s abilities, his work on the UN Building in New York, and his desire to do something really grand in Paris.
The American delegate on the building committee was dead-set against Corbusier and vetoed the idea of giving the project to him directly, however. There was a whispering campaign about Corbusier’s history of construction problems, but the American delegation had also objected to the inclusion of Oscar Niemeyer on the selection committee because of his leftist politics, and the perception that Corbusier might have had similar leanings seems to have shaded Thompson’s response. Corbusier was bitterly disappointed, but he remained involved on the consultation committee and his hand is evident in Breuer’s schematic design and in the beton brut details developed by Breuer and Nervi.
Among the thousands of pages that tell this tale? That’s Corbusier’s CV, submitted at the Director General’s request. If you look closely, it does have entries under “OEUVRE” for oh, say, “Garches–villa” and “Plan voisin, projet pour Paris.” You know, just two little projects that would end up in every textbook and history lecture of the late 20th century. (It’s kind of reassuring that he also–still–had the early houses done for his cousins on the list…)
But, as an alternative theory to why he didn’t get the job, can you imagine submitting a CV for a project of UNESCO’s scale, and doing it in Courier New? I mean, he might as well have used Comic Sans…