The U.N. Building Photographs by Ben Murphy.Thames & Hudson, 2005. £24.95 is considered and wellproduced book provides a thorough documentation of the United Nations headquarters in New York, prior to extensive renovation of its interior.
In a short introductory essay, Aaron Betsky recounts the project's development in the 1950s; his version broadly aligns with that of Rem Koolhaas, seeing it as a successful hybrid of European and American Modernism. Conceptually the balance lay with Le Corbusier.
In its construction and materiality, the American corporate architect Wallace Harrison was dominant.
However, the emphasis of the book quite rapidly shifts from the role of lead architect to the contributions of the lesserknown designers, craftsmen and technicians of the building's interior fabric.
Thames & Hudson cleverly mixes a number of genres here.
The book is a glossy portrait of a high-specification, bespoke interior design, perhaps the definitive statement of 1950s material culture. But it is also an intelligently observed photo-essay of a working environment, utilising the kind of consistent approach more familiar in specialised photographic publications.
With their intensity of gaze, Ben Murphy's photographs are clearly more than just a response to a commission. He writes of his work: 'I am always looking for places that contain a strong sense of history [. . . ] to investigate the idea of impermanence.' We accompany Murphy on an exhaustive tour of the complex's interior, from the monumental and highly orchestrated space of the General Assembly Hall to an abject corner of the TV studio make-up room. This attention to all permutations of the building's programme is echoed in close scrutiny of the smaller, more intimate objects of its daily life - sharpened pencils and translation earpieces are recurrent motifs. This notion of 'impermanence' resides, however, not so much in transient ephemera but in the steady and inevitable shift in ideological perception.
As Betsky states through the title of his essay, 'Staging the Future', the UN building was, unequivocally, a utopian enterprise. Murphy succeeds in articulating the distance between the period of post-war hope and now. While the physical evidence of the passage of time on the furnishings is remarkably light, the fragmentation of the ideology behind the building's symbolic gestures is all too evident.
The cumulative effect of Murphy's images is twofold.
On the one hand, he creates a sense of estrangement between the mid-century interior and the contemporary viewer, a powerful confirmation that we now belong to a quite different material culture. On the other, his feeling for the minutiae of the building instils a nostalgia for the sense of unified purpose that the scheme sought to embody. In these photographs we face a seemingly still unresolved tension: between Modernity as a signature style of the recent past and as the quintessential project of our times that remains incomplete.
Robin Wilson is a writer in London