Kris à Genève

A Canadian living in Switzerland

Palais des Nations, la suite

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In late June, I posted an entry about the Palais des Nations that contained photos I had collected of the complex over the course of my working there. At the end of that entry, I listed three parts of the Palais that I had been unable to visit: the Salle du Conseil, with its grand murals; the various small salons that individual member countries had paid to refurbish; and Salle XX, the ceiling of which Spanish artist Miquel Barceló hung with hundreds of colourful stalactites.

During the month of July, I managed to photograph two of the three areas I had missed, as well as the Library wing of the Palais.

July was the perfect month in which to visit the more exclusive parts of the Palais. Summer holidays reduce the flow of meetings in these rooms to a trickle, as well as increasing the number of guided tours that circulate through them. I took advantage, first joining a standard guided tour for visitors, and later registering for a new “art and architecture” tour organised by the Palais’ visitor service.

I was impressed at how informative and professional the tours were. In particular for the “art and architecture” tour, the visitors service had hired an academic with an encyclopaedic knowledge of the Palais, and with the skills to share that knowledge. Afterwards, they were keen to know our impressions, and what other themed tours they could offer.

On the two tours, I noticed that the guides left each room unlocked, since there were no scheduled meetings and the next tour group was always just a few minutes behind. So on several occasions over the following couple of weeks, I slipped into these unlocked rooms with my camera and snapped away.

Below are some photos to fill the blanks left in my last Palais entry. Beginning with function over beauty, here are a couple of shots from the Library wing, which was renovated in 2010.

Next is the bright but sparse lobby outside of the Salle du Conseil:

The central decorations in the lobby are the bas-relief above the entrance and the vase in the centre of the room. The bas-relief is entitled “The Creation of Man” and was obviously inspired in part by Michelangelo’s fresco of “The Creation of Adam.” The bas-relief is part of the original Palais structure and was sculpted by Briton Eric Gill.

The porcelain vase was donated by Japan and created by Yasuhiko Shirakata in commemoration of the UN’s 50th anniversary in 1995. Oddly, UN websites cite the vase name as “The Blue Planet of Life,” but translations from Japanese websites seem to use “The Blue Star of Life.” The meaning is the same, but the discrepancy is ironic given the emphasis on linguistic diplomacy at the UN.

The Salle du Conseil itself is where the Council of the League of Nations used to sit. In recent history, the Conference on Disarmament has used the chamber. Here is a photo from the floor of the chamber, shot from the table where the president and council sit.

Here is a photo shot from the balcony. Regarding the colour of the murals: the yellow cast is not due to the white balance of the digital file – the murals really are that yellow.

Another view of the Salle du Conseil from the balcony:

Spanish artist José María Sert painted the murals as part of the original design of the Salle du Conseil. In fact, they are not murals at all, but canvases that he painted elsewhere and that were then transported and installed in the chamber.

In the three above photos, you can see an innovative structure to the murals. The yellow sections depict the political scenes and messages the artist tries to convey. At their edges, they appear to unfurl like curtains or banners and between these edges are grey sections inhabited by grim figures. I think the grey figures represent the artists and writers who work behind the scenes to tell the political stories in the featured yellow sections.

The mural scenes are in chronological order on three walls. The first wall depicts two scenes: first, technological progress and, second, social progress. The photo below shows the emancipation section of the social progress mural.

One of the murals on the second wall depicts the folly of war, or the impermanent victor’s peace, with conquerors lording over the conquered.

The final mural depicts hope and the overthrow of war.

If the wall murals attempt to show the mixed history of human civilisation, leading to an idealised future, the ceiling mural describes the mechanism by which to achieve the end goal. In “The Lesson of Salamanca,” the five continents – represented as muscular, half-naked men… – join hands in cooperation.

The size and design of the Salle du Conseil reflects its purpose, namely for big groups to debate big subjects. But diplomacy often advances, not at the slow pace of consensus-based UN assemblies, but in smaller, more agile conversations that occur, in private, between a handful of high-level decision makers. At the Palais, these private conversations happen in a variety of small salons, many of them individually renovated and decorated by one member country or another.

Here is a photo of the Czech and Slovak Room (Salon Tchéque et Slovaque), appointed in a reined-in, jazz-lounge style:

Next is the Salon Français, which sits right next to the Salle du Conseil. Our tour guide said that high-level visitors to the Conference on Disarmament often cool their heels in this room before entering the big chamber. This is also rumoured to be where workers have discovered a few listening devices over the years. The French renovated the room in 2005, although they kept the pre-existing design.

Shortly after their rather tardy entrance into the United Nations in 2002, the Swiss undertook the renovation of Salle VI, which is better known as the Bar des Délégués (Delegates’ Bar). In renovating the room, the Swiss retouched the excellent frescos on the walls and updated the furniture. I enjoy the Bar des Délégués, not only for the excellent frescos, but also because the room as a whole seems to fit the style and feel of the Palais. By comparison, some of the other unique salons, while they may be attractive, do not fit in to the feel of the overall complex.

I have left my favourite room for last: the Salle de Lettonie (Latvian Room). With my family’s Latvian heritage, my ears naturally perked when I first heard that there was a Latvian room. My initial interest grew further when I saw the room. It is unique in the Palais for its extensive use of wood: Latvian cedar is the main material used in the door, floor, walls, furniture and artwork. I also like its colours and themes: distinct yet subtle.

A third attraction for me was that Latvia’s history is reflected in the history of the room. In 1938, when it was still an independent country, Latvia offered to decorate the room for the League of Nations. Work stopped when World War II erupted and the Russians invaded Latvia in 1940. The renovation remained half finished until 1995, when a newly independent Latvia completed it.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this entry, I have so far been unable to wander through Salle XX, and under its impressive ceiling installation. The Human Rights Council has had its annual meeting in Salle XX over the last two weeks, so perhaps next week there will be enough of a lull to allow visitors inside (it is the only room in the building with a security guards and scanners at the door).

As I continue to explore, I also come across even more rooms I would like to photograph. An ironic example was when I found myself without my camera in a meeting in Salle IV, recently renovated by the government of Morocco – it was a UN Photo Club meeting!


One Response

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  1. I like the ceiling in the Latvian Room. Very cool.


    October 15, 2012 at 06:17

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