Skidmore, Owings & Merrill Draws on Architectural Harmony for the Permanent Mission of the United Arab Emirates to the United Nations
Established only 50 years ago, the United Arab Emirates has, within the last two decades, emerged as a rock of geopolitical stability and a cultural magnet in the Middle East. Almost as an instrument of state policy, architecture has played a role in the UAE’s development and national image. Icons such as Jean Nouvel’s Louvre Abu Dhabi, Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, and Skidmore, Owings & Merrill’s Burj Khalifa in Dubai—at 162 stories, the tallest building in the world—symbolize the dynamism of the country.
Along with its growing presence on the international cultural map, the UAE, which is about to serve again on the United Nation’s Security Council, has also emerged as a rising diplomatic force in New York. In 2014, having outgrown two floors in an office building near the UN, and needing greater presence in the city’s diplomatic milieu, the Permanent Mission of the United Arab Emirates to the UN held an invited competition to design a flagship home. The New York office of SOM won the competition for an infill building on a through-block site between Dag Hammarskjöld Plaza and East 46th Street.
Besides the need for privacy and security, and a program of executive suites, offices, and lecture and reception rooms, the brief called for an aspirational design requiring architectural diplomacy: elegance without ostentation and an ethos of dignity, calm, grace, and gravity. Later, the client asked that the concept also evoke New York’s art deco landmarks as well as the Middle East’s ubiquitous palm tree, a symbol of peace and desert culture.
Diplomats now enter the mission underneath a bronze canopy cantilevered from a facade composed of long, thin, Indiana limestone mullions that climb to the top of the 10-story, 75,000-square-foot building. Recalling the tapered spines of palm leaves, the gently undulating CNC-milled mullions rise from a stone frieze at the base, itself milled with a row of stylized fronds. Using rock from quarries that supplied Rockefeller Center and the Empire State Building, the understated facade introduces visitors into the decorum of a building centered around the simple pleasures of the square, the cube, and symmetry.
Just beyond the reception and security desks in the entry vestibule—its floor and walls surfaced in geometrically patterned Portuguese limestone—visitors step into a surprise: a two-story burst of space with a cliff of stairs that zigzag upward like a switchback version of ancient Greek propylaea. Recalling the courtyard of a traditional Emirati building, this welcoming central hall with a recessed 40-foot ceiling finished in hand-gilded metal leaf, transposes traditional Arab attitudes of hospitality to Midtown East. The simple, axially organized prism has a pharaonic architectural authority, confirmed by floors and walls uniformly clad in dark, sedimented, meticulously slip-matched St. Pierre limestone. The geometry is pure, but the room feels solid, encased, and immersive. The SOM team, led by design partner Chris Cooper, materializes abstraction: There is a there here.
A tall box of dark stone nested within a larger, taller box of white Italian marble, the entry hall is the heart of the building, a core that initiates the interior’s sense of ceremonial progression. Functionally, it leads to event spaces on the second floor, but thematically it establishes a precedent for the reductive palette of rich, beautifully crafted stone and wood, mainly walnut, on the floors above, and for the symmetries and geometric simplicity throughout. On higher floors, secure elevator landings open onto reception courts—either carpeted or floored in wood-inlaid stone—surrounded by offices, meeting rooms, and work areas. “The planning is very consistent from bottom to top,” Cooper explains. “The stone heightens the sense of formality, and the formality lends itself to a sense of procession through the building.”
Using no decoration or architectonic articulation of details, Cooper and his colleagues keep planes clean, edges crisp, and volumes pure. Finishes are matte rather than polished. The simplicity foregrounds the natural patterns in the veins of the marbles and grains of the wood, but it also sets the stage for design at the next scale, furnishings that bring the human hand into the project.
Cooper worked with a range of collaborators to integrate the decorative arts into a total, environmentally immersive scheme. Lebanese designer Nada Debs created contemporary sofas, armchairs, and tables for the entry hall and offices on the upper executive floors, the furniture’s edges subtly inflected with inlaid mother-of-pearl patterns. Rugs handwoven with natural fibers and dyes by Afghan craftswomen feature traditional complex motifs in nuanced colors; each one is unique, made to complement its dedicated space. The furnishings bring traditional cultural references into the interiors, rooting the building in the Middle East without lapsing into craft nostalgia. The rugs provide terrain for islands of furniture placed in traditional majlis seating arrangements, which emphasize the equality of the interlocutors.
The overall result is harmony in a low-key visual register: The tone never lapses. Each element, whether a wall of limestone or a marble table, plays a scripted part in a visual ensemble. With the precision of a Swiss watch, the parts fit seamlessly, creating apparent simplicity out of complexity. SOM has designed an architectural model of diplomatic agreement.
product sources from front
- aswa acoustic
- B&B Italia
- Carl Hansen & Son
- cosentini associates
- Dave Burk/Skidmore
- desimone consulting engineers
- empire furniture
- four daughters architectural millwork
- indiana limestone company
- Joseph Giovannini
- lasa marmo
- lv wood
- marc phillips
- michael anastassiades
- nada debs
- Owings & Merrill
- Permanent Mission of the United Arab Emirates to the United Nations
- philip habib & associates
- plaza construction
- sbld studio
- studio e
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