Diplomacy and design at the United Nations

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The UN Security Council chamber is being renovated. In the meantime, the council is meeting in temporary quarters that preserve the look and feel of the original, complete with the same horseshoe-shaped table. The architects say the language of diplomatic consensus is built into their design. Alex Gallafent reports from New York.

In 1946 the United Nations had been in existence for only a year. The Security Council met at temporary headquarters on Long Island, New York.

But by 1960 the Security Council had been at its permanent home in Manhattan for eight years. It was already established as the place where superpowers met to exchange words.

US ambassadors including Henry Cabot Lodge spoke from the United States' permanent seat at the Security Council table, that iconic, horseshoe table you'd recognize from the news and the movies.

To this day, a plaque bears the name of a country at each seat around the table. Behind each seat other chairs are arranged in neat rows for advisors.

Michael Adlerstein is an architectural historian who's leading a major program to renovate the UN headquarters, including the Security Council chamber. He told me the arrangement of the room is a formula.

?And it's developed over time as being a workable formula,? Adlerstein said. ?Everyone in the room knows if they turn to the right they're going to see a certain performance.?

Not just everyone in the room. Everyone outside too, including people watching on TV. The visual language of the Security Council is ingrained in our collective memory: the table, the rows of chairs, and the massive mural towering over proceedings.

?It's been here since the very beginning, donated by Norway,? said Adlerstein. ?It can be interpreted in many ways but it's sort of rising from the ashes of war to peace, and it's a wonderful metaphor for what goes on ? what's supposed to go on ? in this room.?

Actually, not always this room precisely.

Last year the Security Council moved to a conference room in the UN complex, so that the original chamber could be refurbished. That's likely to take until the end of next year.

But in the temporary chamber, every effort has been taken to preserve the look and feel of the space. The famous table was moved in, the chairs arranged the same way, and Adlerstein's team even created a copy of the mural.

?This is not the original. This is a photograph ? we did a wonderful photograph of it at slightly smaller than full scale in order to bring back the ambience of the room.?

The sheer continuity of the Security Council chamber is, in a way, comforting. You see the room and you're reminded that ? effective or not ? there's always been one place where the world's major players could at least sit down and talk.

David Bosco is the author of ?Five to Rule Them All,? a title that refers to the five permanent members of the Council. He said the room has changed over the years.

?In earlier iterations the Security Council had a more outward-facing table so that the diplomats were speaking to the public, and to the cameras and the lights, rather than facing each other,? Bosco said. ?And the idea of the horseshoe-shaped table was that they would be speaking to each other.?

There's always been a tension in the way the Security Council works, between a working forum for diplomacy, and an outward-looking chamber, transparently accountable to the world.

?The architects debated quite a bit in terms of how much access the public should have,? said Bosco. ?There was a strong strain of support for the idea of transparency, that this was going to be a global organization that needed to be open to the international public. But there was also an awareness that you didn't want to create the feeling that the diplomats were performing for the public.?

Yet down the decades the Security Council has become something of a public political theater.

Ambassadors generally deliver prepared remarks and speeches. More and more they offer presentations, with supporting maps, charts, and ? in some cases ? audio recordings.

For example, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell played sound recordings in his 2003 presentation to the Security Council before the war in Iraq.

But despite the increased use of technology the chamber as public theater is nothing new. During the Cold War, the US and the Soviet Union would launch pointed speeches in each others' direction.

There was little talking to each other, horseshoe table or no. And so in the 1970s there was a push for a little privacy.

Michael Adlerstein at the UN said that the public sees the Security Council chamber, but that lesser-known is a sequence of small rooms surrounding the Security Council chamber, ?for smaller consultations, and for caucusing ? which all serve part of the discussion process.?

Adlerstein told me that there are ways for you to disappear into rooms for discussions without anyone knowing who you're in there with. And also rooms that are much more visible, in case you want people to know.

There's one space in particular that's become more important than all the others.

Adlerstein said, ?The Consultation Room is the smaller version of the Security Council, without the cameras. There's no press, and it's the same arrangement of the same countries, with the same advisors, two for each country.?

Some of the details are different from the main chamber, but the Consultation Room really does look like ?Honey, I Shrunk the Security Council', right down to the bite-sized horseshoe table.

Author David Bosco said, ?The Consultation Room has become the place where the Security Council does its work.?

It's where the posturing has a chance to end, and the real discussions have a chance to begin. David Bosco was told a revealing story by a former US ambassador to the UN.

?He remembers going into the Consultation Room for one of the first sessions in that room,? Bosco recalled. ?And one of the Soviet bloc ambassadors, maybe the Bulgarian ambassador, launched into an anti-western tirade, the kind of thing you'd hear all the time in the formal chamber. And the Soviet ambassador leaned over to him and said quite loudly, ?we don't talk that way in here.'?

But the Consultation Room isn't universally popular. No transcripts are taken of the discussions held there. No-one knows what was said, for instance, during the genocide in Rwanda in 1994.

And countries that are not members of the Security Council often complain at being kept in the dark.

After all, the United Nations is in part built on the very idea that transparency is the best antidote to conflict ? and yet, in this small room, the discussions of the Security Council are kept secret.

Still, as David Bosco said, ?If you suddenly said ?Okay, in the Consultation Room we're going to keep transcripts, and allow photographers in', then it would probably move someplace else.?

Wikileaks has rekindled age-old debates about the degree to which governments ought to be allowed to operate without public scrutiny.

But, for better or worse, secrecy in the service of diplomacy is built into the very architecture of the United Nations.

Indeed it's considered so important to the way things work, that all of the spaces associated with the Security Council ? the public ones and the private ones ? have been recreated underground during the restoration period.