Conclusion: Geneva in the Age of the Office

These lines were written as “International Geneva” prepares to celebrate its first century, which began in 1919 with the arrival of the ILO, the only one of all the international organizations created by the Treaty of Versailles to have survived until the present with its name and basic configuration intact. This Genevan century reads like a history of the world: ideas of how to keep the peace, methods to implement them, and organizations to do so, brought together in a single place, as if internationalism needed a port of call to spread across the world. Collaborative modes of thought and a culture of collective action evolved there, generating a growth dynamic that no one and nothing can stop.

The UN and its specialized organizations have often been the target of severe criticism — but although disagreements have occasionally led member states to slash their contributions or temporarily withdraw, none have ever threatened to leave permanently. On the contrary, universalization is now the rule. The UN, which replaced the mainly European League of Nations, is a global organization. All countries are eager to belong, as membership imparts legitimacy, while the UN’s technical organizations serve as vehicles of influence.

This logic of universalization translates to a constant need to build. Lack of space is a constant worry for every single organization in Geneva: expansion is always on the agenda. As soon as one building is completed, another is in the works. This constantly repeating process attests to the enduring nature of the principle of cooperation between nations, one that never suffered an ideological rival — notwithstanding the odd cheater or recalcitrant member.

Geneva’s present-day success is a paradox: the collective experiences of the past century have clearly proven beneficial, yet not enough to generate the enthusiasm needed to secure sufficient funding. The structures hosting an ever-growing number of member states constantly require maintenance, renovation, and expansion, even as resources are steadily dwindling. The UN must do more with less. Densify. Rationalize. Condense. And succeed — regardless. A hundred years on, Geneva struggles to remain true to the mission entrusted to it in 1919, while embracing its bloated twenty-first-century incarnation.

It is worth noting in this context that the UN’s member states, overcoming any lingering misgivings, have agreed to underwrite the renovation and expansion of the buildings where they meet to discuss and develop the ethical, political, and technical standards of the world today.

The renovation of the Palace of Nations, the WHO, and the ILO will collectively cost 1.3 billion Swiss francs. Swiss authorities (the federal government, canton, and city of Geneva) will provide roughly half of this amount in the form of no-interest loans. This represents the monetary cost of maintaining Geneva’s position as a hub for peace and standards, despite its high cost of living and competition from rival cities.

But that is not the only price to pay: Geneva’s urban plan also requires attention. The early articles in this series recounted the controversies around the transformation of part of the city into an international quarter: architectural controversies, especially over the construction of the Palace of Nations; and urban planning ones, mainly regarding residential buildings and traffic around the Place des Nations.

After his plan for the Palace was rejected, in 1930, Le Corbusier complained in a letter to Nicolae Titulescu, then president of the Assembly of the League, about the improvised nature of public decision-making:

The Palace of Nations is the first office building devoted to the management of world affairs. But will this building on its own be sufficient for the task? Will not world affairs constantly require new spaces for work, study, and meetings? Would it not be wise to anticipate this imminent development? To anticipate means to choose locations and sites; to propose, reserve, and plan access to these sites. In other words, to urbanize.

Urban planning, focused on the question of the Palace and the urbanization of the areas surrounding the city, which are so intimately familiar to us, has been our constant concern since 1927 — an urbanization that concerns the landscape, in other words, the repository of all that which is sacred: the splendour of the site, its lawns, woods, and views. We have never ceased to anticipate; we have drawn up plans for the entire district of Geneva extending from the Quai Wilson toward the future international organizations; we have knowingly urbanized the places necessary to a world city, that is, a place in which the institutions already present, those which will emerge soon, and those yet to come, can work (1).

The only part of this plea for better planning that local authorities and global powers heeded was the sacred order of the landscape. As much as possible, parks would remain parks — in the city of Rousseau, trees have inalienable rights — and there would be no skyscrapers so that the skyline would remain untouched. This concern is so deep and enduring that the management of the Palace of Nations recently opted to lop off the top four floors of the office block built in 1972–74 by Eugène Beaudouin and Basil Spence, which jut out above the hill in an unsightly way. The lost space will be replaced by a new, more rationally laid-out structure, partly buried underground.

That being said, Le Corbusier’s words otherwise fell on deaf ears. The “world city” of today is still little more than a neighbourhood surrounding a square which was left empty for decades before finally being landscaped in 2007, albeit quite modestly. Development was managed on a case-by-case basis. Does the WTO need more room? Why not build a new office block, 500 m up the road from its main building? Does the WTO reject it? No one has any idea what to do. In the end, an arrangement is found. Geneva’s inventiveness in conjuring last-minute solutions matches only its reluctance to plan.

This is how international Geneva has grown: in response to unanticipated needs. Many critics have denounced this ad-hoc approach. Nostalgic for Le Corbusier, the architectural historian Henri Stierlin lamented that the international district had not become “a sort of Weissenhofsiedlung of the highest order, a manifesto of twentieth-century architecture” (2). But how likely was a residential complex in Stuttgart, built in the 1930s by the avant-garde of European modernism, to serve as a model for the Genevan project, given the number and variety of players involved? The project had to accommodate every level of Swiss and international decision-making — from the City of Geneva, which had a veto right, to the Secretary-General of the United Nations, not to mention the various organizations’ general assemblies, directors, and presidents. Each project in and of itself was a feat of bravery; ensuring coherence among them would have required something impossible: an architectural governing body with the authority to intervene in choices made by a building’s owners.

Ultimately, technological advances, and the new forms they enabled, defined the logic of international Geneva’s built environment and each of its developmental stages. Massive buildings before the age of reinforced concrete, lightweight ones after. Buildings from before the age of aluminium, metal-cloaked structures after. Buildings from before the age of prefabrication, buildings produced in factories after. The list goes on. The industrialization of the post-war years facilitated the modernization of construction techniques. The chronology of this evolution clearly maps onto the international quarter, with glass and steel as its final chapter. Shortly before then, thanks to the development of watertight materials, architects also ventured underground, as in the Red Cross Museum, and as they will do so again soon for the Palace of Nations.

Of all the technological eras represented in Geneva, two buildings embody a clear shift. The first, Jean Tschumi’s WHO headquarters (1966), brings beauty to the severe empire of modernist office architecture. From then on, there was no room for mediocrity. In the second, the World Meteorological Organization building (1999), curves subvert the traditional conventions of the white-collar workplace. Mindful of the long hours that employees are forced to spend at work, the WMO architects focused on making it pleasant. Their playful structure helps reduce both stress and energy usage, through highly innovative heating and cooling systems. From then on, there was no room for boredom. Colour, sinuous and broken lines, and unexpected shapes now play their little games in the landscape of international Geneva. Some call this style “eclecticism”. Why not?

Meanwhile, the relationship between Geneva, Switzerland, and their guests has changed. An urban plan, published in 2005, laid out a series of building sites, roads, and parks connected by walkways. The international quarter has been renamed the “Garden of Nations”, proof that cultivating it is now a priority. The organizations themselves have opened their doors in an effort to make themselves better known. Their main counterpart at the cantonal level is its president, a position recently created by the new cantonal constitution, whose responsibilities include managing relations between the Genevans and the “internationals”.

Unfamiliar to many locals, far from the city centre, this quarter inhabited by foreigners preoccupied with the affairs of distant lands, is drawing ever closer. Its buildings, though ignored by most Genevans, emerge from anonymity as soon as public funding is needed to renovate them. Viewed at one time with indifference, they have now become part of our heritage. Franz Graf and Giulia Marino of the Laboratoire des Techniques et de la Sauvegarde de l’Architecture Moderne at the EPFL, in their study of the area’s most significant buildings, praise them effusively, recommending that future renovations respect the original architectural intentions. Comparing international Geneva to what was done elsewhere, they conclude that it offers “a striking snapshot of high-quality, post-Second-World-War administrative and representational architecture” (3).

In his novel Belle du Seigneur, Albert Cohen immortalized the “office” as an archetypal twentieth-century social setting. The League, followed by the UN, transformed Geneva into a city of office buildings. For architects, this shift meant resolving problems of mass, interior layout, functional hierarchy, and representational role. They did so in their own distinctive style, within the relatively narrow confines of their respective briefs. The public noticed the mass but rarely the style, the alignment of windows on the façades but not the social constraints involved.

This century of offices is often perceived as overbearing. The colossi rising up from the Quartier des Nations left “local Geneva” cold. But the age of the “dinosaur” — as the ILO building was called — is long gone. Walls between offices are being knocked down in the interest of cost-cutting. Glass-shrouded buildings reveal open-plan workspaces. The mirror of their smooth, transparent façades reflects the world outside. Authoritarianism in office architecture is disappearing, along with authoritarianism in work relations. International Geneva’s built environment is thus also a portrait of twentieth-century society, one whose appearance will undoubtedly continue to evolve in the twenty-first.



(1) Letter to Nicolae Titulescu, president of the 11th Assembly of the League of Nations, dated 18 September 1930, published in Schweizerische Bauzeitung no. 23, vol. 96
(2) Henri Stierlin, “Les organizations internationales et l’architecture: un grand espoir”, in Werk, no. 7, July/August 1974, pp. 821–822
(3) Graf and Marino, Le siège de lONU à Genève, Lagrandissement du Palais des Nations, Etude patrimoniale, Part 2, “Introduction”, p.13

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