Fueled by the devastating outcomes of WWII, European officials and citizens alike realized the need to create an international haven for the preservation of ideas from the arenas of culture, education, and science.
On November 16th, 1945 such an organization was founded, named UNESCO, as an official body under the United Nations, yet specifically oriented to “build peace in the minds of men” through Education, social and natural science, culture and communication efforts the world over. This new global entity was seen as a landmark against which great works and ideas were preserved, and celebrated.
However, initial plans for a grandiose UNESCO architecture weren’t so easily agreed upon. Three of the most accomplished and influential modernist architects of the time; American Marcel Breuer, Italian Luigi Nervi, and German Bernard Zehrfuss set out to stun. However well intentioned they may have been, their original plans for UNESCO I were quickly set ablaze.
Outlined as three buildings connected by corridors and bridges, the original plans called for a 17 story glass and concrete office building connected to a two-story conference center, and an auditorium with outdoor amphitheater. Due to their stark contrast with the established and ‘seamless’ urban fabric of the Beaux-Arts ilk, the plans were met with rejection by the Paris Building Committee, and in some cases outright hostility by the Parisian public, even before a vote by the General Assembly could be held.
Thus plans for UNESCO II were underway; a modified, scaled down, and somewhat ‘friendlier’ version of UNESCO I. The new building, located at 7 Place de Fontenoy behind the Ecole Militaire and within sight of the Tour Eifel in Paris’ 7th Arrondisement, was approved by the General Assembly in 1953, and construction began two years later in February of 1955. Integral to the new plans were large works of painting and sculpture by various artists, including a tapestry by Charles Eduoard Jeanneret-Gris (Le Corbusier)  and a large mural on 40 individual wooden panels titled “The Fall of Icarus” by Pablo Picasso . Later additions to the property include a circular meditation space by Japanese Architect Tadao Aando, which can be found in the Noguchi designed peace garden adjacent to the Secretariat building .
More in keeping with the scale of surrounding buildings, the main structure was reduced in height from an original 17 stories to a mere 8. Its curved shape also mirrors that of an established building across the Place de Fontenoy, completing a semi-circular façade directly behind the Ecole Militaire . The curve is repeated on the remaining three sides of the Secretariat, lending the building the shape of a three-pointed star [2-4]. Embraced by two of its arms and linked by a concrete walkway is the much celebrated Conference center. Perhaps the most architecturally significant structure on the site, the construction of the auditorium is an ingenious working of concrete, the precision of the formwork creating crisp folds and delicate lines along the façade and interior walls .
Though problems soon arose in the late 1950’s, Breuer remained optimistic. In response to breaking glass panels in the sliding exterior windows, he replied simply. However, growing temperatures and unbearable conditions within the secretariat building would require more than a simple acknowledgement. A crucial decision made by Breuer in 1952 ensured that no Air Conditioning was to be installed in the building. Instead, it was believed that “a series of sun shades and vertical screens of solar glass” on the principle facades would suffice . However, the nine-page “Rapport sur la protenction contre la chaleur des bureaux du Palais de l’UNESCO” released on the 26th of March, 1959 revealed this blunder to the public. Breuer’s defensive retort to these comments can be seen today on display in the Archives of American Art.
Though the site of the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization may be questioned, and it’s architecture criticized, there is no doubt in the minds of Parisians today that it indeed represents a movement forward from a staid, homogenous time in the city’s architectural history. Perhaps not quite acting as the catalyst for modern architecture it was hoped to become, the Palais de l’UNESCO still maintains a presence amongst its Parisian counterparts that is both austere, and admirable.