The President of the Republic of Chile, Mr. Gabriel Gonzalez Videla (center); U.N. Secretary-General Trygve Lie (right) and Mr. Wallace K. Harrison, Director of U.N. Headquarters Planning viewing a scale model of the Permanent U.N. Headquarters, 19 April 1950. United Nations Photo #331825

Design for International Peacekeeping

A Rare Scale Model of the United Nations General Assembly Building

Two years after its formation, the United Nations finally settled on a seventeen-acre plot, donated by John D. Rockefeller,  in New York City for its location. In lieu of a competition, the United Nations decided to invite prominent architects to work in a collaborative, peaceful manner on the design of their headquarters. Wallace Harrison was hired to lead a team of architects and engineers elected by member governments; in addition to Harrison, the United Nations Headquarters Board of Design was comprised of N.D. Bassov of the Soviet Union, Gaston Brunfaut of Belgium, Ernest Cormier of Canada, Le Corbusier of France, Liang Seu-cheng of China, Sven Markelius of Sweden, Oscar Niemeyer of Brazil, Howard Robertson of the United Kingdom, G.A. Soilleux of Australia and Julio Vilamajó of Uruguay.

Scheme 23A, working model for the United Nations Headquarters by Le Corbusier, 3 May 1947. United Nations Photo #102877
Scheme 32, working model for the United Nations Headquarters by Oscar Niemeyer, 3 May 1947. United Nations Photo #37183

Over the course of four months in 1947, the team met and worked on several ideas for the headquarter buildings and layout. In total the team would review fifty design schemes that were developed collaboratively as well as individually. The selection came down to two, Le Corbusier’s scheme 23 and Oscar Niemeyer’s scheme 32, and it was Niemeyer’s design for two towers and a large civic plaza that was finally selected. Le Corbusier, however, appealed to the young architect and in the end the design and composition was a combination of their two designs: Niemeyer’s Secretariat building, a 39-floor tower built in the International Style and Le Corbusier’s monolithic General Assembly Hall with a circular dome that allows natural light into the great hall that seats 1,800. Of this change, Niemeyer stated: ‘I felt he would like to do his project, and he was the master. I do not regret my decision.” 

The present lot is a scale model presented by the United Nations Headquarters Board of Design for the final design of the General Assembly Hall. It is the only known original model of the building that still survives. The model remained in the collection of Wallace Harrison and was acquired from his estate by Alastair Gordon in 1984.

This rare model was on extended loan to The Museum of Modern Art in New York and part of several noteworthy exhibitions including 194X-9/11 American Architects and the City (2011) and Le Corbusier: An Atlas of Modern Landscapes (2013). The work was also included in two exhibitions in Spain in 2014, Caixa Forum Barcelona and Caixa Forum Madrid.

Wallace Harrison, Director of Planning for the UN Headquarters, 1 January 1948. United Nations Photo #51368
Oscar Niemeyer drawing up plans for the UN Headquarters, 12 March 1947. United Nations Photo #51375
Le Corbusier (right) and Vladimir Bodiansky drawing up plans of the UN Headquarters, 26 March 1947. United Nations Photo #36627