UN headquarters occupy two principal buildings between First Avenue and the East River in New York, housing the General Assembly and the Secretariat respectively, as well as an additional conference building and a library. Like Westminster and Whitehall, or Strasbourg and Brussels, or any number of similar examples, they represent spatially and architecturally the distinction between its deliberative and administrative functions.
The UN General Assembly has a capacity of 1800, each national delegation being allocated six seats, three at a desk and three behind them, in massed ranks something like a huge theatre. The Security Council meets in a designated chamber in the conference building, around a table in ring form. The ring is broken at one side, like a horseshoe, and there are lines of observers’ chairs opposite this open side. Other chairs are lined against the side walls. A rectangular table in the centre of the ring is for stenographers and other officials.
In 1978, a consultation room was built next to the chamber, for use by Security Council members but which remains closed to representatives of other countries and to the press. Much deliberation and negotiation happens here, informally, backstage and off the record, before being presented and agreed in the open – formal, official and public – forum of the chamber.
Nancy Davenport’s Renovation includes archive and planning documents as well as her photographs of the extensive refit of the UN complex which began in 2008. One is essentially a wiring diagram of the Security Council chamber, showing the conduits which link seats to desk microphones in front of them, to each other, and to the building’s power and telecommunications networks. Lines of communication are wired into the arrangement of the room.
A drawing seems to be an architect’s original impression of the chamber, done in soft grey pencil or charcoal. The perspective is downward, from a raked auditorium seat high on one wall, into the middle of the table which is in the middle of the room. Walls to the left and right lean inward, carrying windowed interpreters’ booths overlooking the floor. The surround is heavily shaded, all the light in the picture seeming to come from the blank spaces of the floor. Grey figures sit at the table, some reaching or leaning over it, each with clusters of advisers in seats behind them. It looks like nothing so much as one of those artists’ impressions of Plato’s cave.