Most design-related attention being paid to the United Arab Emirates right now is, not surprisingly, focused on the dozens of big-name architect-stamped pavilions that have been erected across a swath of once-barren desert for Expo 2020 Dubai. The UAE, however, is also turning heads stateside with its new headquarters for the Permanent Mission to the United Nations at 3 Dag Hammarskjold Plaza in Midtown Manhattan.
Designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) in a project led by design partner Chris Cooper, the recently completed 10-story building marks the first ground-up mission to the U.N. to be realized in New York City in over a decade. (As noted by the firm, the UAE maintains a separate foreign consulate in New York and, as such, the new building will be used exclusively for the UAE’s diplomacy to the U.N.)
Targeting LEED Gold certification, the 75,000-square-foot building melds into the surrounding cityscape but not without incorporating Middle Eastern cultural motifs into its design including the reoccurring presence of palm leaves, a symbol of peace in the Middle East and beyond. The palm leaf is represented in the tapering limestone fins that stretch across the building’s glass facade and are meant to evoke the narrowing spine of the leaf. In addition to the dense array of thin vertical strips, the Arecaceae motif also appears in a decidedly less abstract fashion along a 75-foot-long ground-level frieze that flanks the building’s entrance. In a nod to the Big Apple’s architectural heritage, the limestone in question is Indiana limestone, also used in the construction of Rockefeller Center and the Empire State Building.
“Its architecture is designed to embrace the city – to harmonize with New York’s architectural past, while also reflecting the identity of the UAE and the traditions of Middle Eastern hospitality,” wrote the architects in the project narrative, referring to the structure as being a Gesamtkunstwerk, “a work of art inspired by an all-encompassing vision, comprehensively executed down to nearly every detail, from the exterior to the interior finishes and furnishing.”
Visitors enter the building through a Portuguese limestone security checkpoint and into a 40-foot-tall entry hall that, much like the role courtyards play in traditional Middle Eastern home design, serves as a “point of immersion” for the mission per SOM. Working closely with Lebanese designer Nada Debs, who also executed custom furnishings through the building, the dramatic, double-height entry hall is flush with natural materials, namely dark Northern Canadian limestone that covers the entrance hall’s walls, floor, and ceiling as well as the sculptural staircase that leads up to the second floor. There’s an almost brooding sense of theatricality at play here, but, as noted by SOM, the natural materiality of the space combined with the overall emphasis on hospitality exudes a certain welcoming warmth.
Up a level on the second floor, which is defined by white Italian marble, there’s a large, multipurpose event room for lectures, parties, and other assorted goings-on. Adjacent to that is a smaller flexible space meant to function as “both auditorium and art gallery.” The third floor is the amenity level and includes staff lounges, a dining room, crèche, and more. (Calcutta marble and flat-cut walnut, as noted by SOM, are the prevailing materials here.) Above that, on floors four through six, are staff offices and workspaces. The “courtyard” reappears here as each of these three floors are centered around a central lounge and reception area. The seventh and eighth floors are the executive levels, with many of the spaces, outfitted with Debs’s custom furnishings and curated art, featuring sweeping views of Dag Hammarskjold Plaza below.
Finally, situated above a ninth floor dedicated to housing the building’s high-efficiency mechanical systems, is a large and lushly planted rooftop terrace complete with a stone-clad interior event space accessible through a sliding glass door.
“Throughout the entire building, both inside and out, the architecture coalesces into a unified expression — one that builds upon an ethos of rigorousness that is essential to SOM’s work” explained SOM. “There is a timelessness in its materiality, as well as a durability. The permanence of the material will make the new building of the UAE Mission to the U.N. a lasting work of architecture that will serve the UAE for decades to come.”