The Palais des Nations in 1959 with the Celestial Sphere in the foreground and the flags of the member states of the United Nations. (Photo: UN)

Geneva could have had a Palais des Nations by Le Corbusier, the most influential architect of the 20th century. However, the League of Nations, which built the Palais overlooking Lake Geneva as its headquarters, said no. The Swiss-born architect later started proceedings against the League for plagiarism. But maybe we had a lucky escape.

The Palais des Nations is an imposing building. It is not unlike the heavy 1930’s style Palais de Chaillot at Trocadero in Paris, where Hitler had himself so famously photographed with the Eiffel Tower in the background in June, 1940 shortly after taking the city and where – ironically – the UN General Assembly later adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. All in all, its exterior looks smug. So smug that you feel it must have a dirty secret behind it.

The story I heard when I first came to the U.N. here in 1975 was that the Palais had five architects who vetoed each other’s ideas for anything exotic or adventurous. As a result, the building, erected to house the League of Nations and never officially inaugurated, is a prime example of design by committee. It has a proto-fascist shell but manages to escape the sheer awfulness of Mussolini’s and Hitler’s public projects. (See Global Geneva article by Robert Enholm on the Celestial Sphere for Peace, which workmen began installing in front of the Palais one day before Hitler invaded Poland on 1 September, 1939 launching World War II.)

Meeting at the Palais des Nations in Geneva. (Photo: UN)

Europe’s second largest building complex

I was never able to confirm this tale — and since the architectural designs were all developed before Hitler came to power in Germany and less than five years after Mussolini took over Italy, it was probably a joke. The Palais itself was built between 1928 and 1938 with certain parts never quite finished. The League, which lasted for 26 years, went out of business with the onset of World War II. It was replaced by the founding of the United Nations on 25 April, 1945 in San Francisco.

But there is a scandalous “back story” to the creation of the second largest building complex in Europe after Versailles, involving Switzerland’s most famous architect, Le Corbusier, the man on the 10-franc note.

Le Corbusier. In a bid to expand his renown, the Swiss architect had his own very distinct vision for the Palais des Nations, but his concept was considered too modernist. (Photo: Open)

I uncovered the details in the Building for Peace exhibition, held in the League of Nations Museum, which ran from April 2010 for six months. But the story was tucked away in one corner, buried in a book produced by Geneva’s University of Art and Design (HEAD) that seems to be about the design competition for the museum itself. And many essential pieces of the jigsaw are still missing.

Frontal view of the 1930’s style Palais des Nations overlooking the Lake of Geneva, Switzerland. (Photo: UN)

Botched plans, jealosies, bad feelings, politicking and corruption

The history I pieced together, by standing in one corner and working through the timeline of the competition in the book, is a typical tale of botched plans, jealousies, bad feelings, politicking and corrupt administrative practices that remind us of 2021 as much as 1927.

What was supposed to happen was that a jury of five architects would award CHF165,000 in prize money to winners of a competition for the building’s design. Le Corbusier (L-C, as he is known in French) and his cousin Pierre Jeanneret wanted desperately to win the contract in order to earn global recognition for L-C’s ideas about public buildings (later known as Brutalism). (See Luisa Ballin’s article in French on Le Courbusier for Global Geneva)

Their bid was generally reckoned among the top two designs, and apparently the only one costed within the CHF13 million budget. But the jury split early into modernists vs academics and they argued over whether estimates should be submitted Swiss-fashion (cost per cubic metre) or include detailed costings.

The jury also squabbled about whether to give one big prize of CHF25,000 (which would encourage mediocre architects to enter for the money) or lots of small prizes (and risk being seen as a competition for beginners). They received 377 projects and in the end gave prizes of CH12,000 to nine teams, including L-C and Jeanneret. But the L-C design was rejected, it seems, because the drawings weren’t submitted in Indian ink. We can’t be sure because no records of the jury deliberations survive (if they ever existed) and we have to guess from the general announcement, which revealed that only one submission came within budget. The Swiss on the committee was the only one to vote for Le Corbusier.

A new building, but a failed organization

Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie addressing the League of Nations regarding Mussolini’s invasion of then Abyssinia in 1935. (Photo: UN)

In the meantime, U.S. industrialist turned philanthropist John D. Rockefeller came forward with $2 million to build a library for the League. The League decided to seek a new site (away from the lake) for the complex. The League finally agreed to give Geneva the Sécheron land it already owned in exchange for the 48-acre Ariana Park. “The Committee of Five Architects were taken by surprise,” a panel at the Museum states blandly. I’ll bet. Why had they bothered with the fractious competition in the first place, if another offer was going to throw them for a loop?

L-C wasn’t satisfied. He wrote to the Swiss friend on the jury to express concern, also wrote to the League Council to press his suit. He even started legal proceedings against the League for plagiarism in the final design, demanding 1 million francs in damages. L-C went to Madrid for a Council meeting to promote his ideas and got the press behind him in a campaign.

Le Corbusier’s plan for the Leage in Geneva. (Photo: City of Geneva)

The League Council brushed him off by telling him of its decision only after the event and informing him that individuals had no right to make representations to the Council. After this, Le Corbusier backed off.

What actually determined the design decisions of the architectural team finally chosen is unclear, and still needs research. But it seems clear that the complex, due for completion in 1934 but opened to staff only in 1936, and remaining incomplete because of funding problems, did not include Le Corbusier’s ideas. An article in a French architectural review went into the issue at the time, and rejected the plagiarism charges. One of the architects said the final plan was clearly based on his own prize submission, and threatened to sue Le Corbusier for defamation.

Concert at the Palais des Nations in Geneva. (Photo: UN)

Two Swiss architects mandated by the League to assess L-C’s design said it was better fitted to an industrial complex, and particularly objected to concrete pillars inside offices. L-C could have probably riposted: “Exactly what I intended” but clearly the League bigwigs wanted something more grandiose.

What it got was a “rather ponderous” design, with a front terrace designed for political rallies that have never taken place. In any case, it was agreed that none of the submitted plans would fit the Ariana site (no reason given).

However, the Fondation Le Corbusier asserts, quoting from the Oeuvre complète vol. 1: “It is incontestible that [the eventual] joint design was directly inspired by the design of MM. Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret which the assessors had premiated (sic) in 1927, and still more obviously by a second design the same architects submitted to them in April,1929.

The Le Corbusier/Jeanneret proposal “incorporated entirely new technical solutions in the Office Wing, an acoustically perfect Assembly Hall, both horizontal and vertical means of communication within the building, modern systems of heating and ventilation, rational access for motor cars and adequate provision for parking them. The idea of a palace constructed of reinforced concrete was, moreover, entirely unprecedented.”

Conference hall at the Palais des Nations in Geneva. (Photo: UN) 

The fondation website has several drawings for the Corbusier/Jeanneret project, which seem to bear out its charges against the commissioners.

As anyone who inhabits the Palais knows, the building is also a collection of major design faults: offices too small for the number of people the U.N. crams into them, where the sun burns through the windows inexorably at various times of the day, a series of echoing rooms, very few spaces for the intimate discussions that form the major part of any negotiation, cavernous and low-standard cafeteria facilities, and hallucinatory corridors that are either dark or eerily fluorescent. This is a complex made for diplomats to sweep up in their limousines and out again rather than for working bureaucrats. (The Palais is now being completely renovated, primarily with Swiss money. Another potential scandal, this has been made available as a loan, but which, according to some sources, will probably be turned into a grant as the U.N. will never have the funding to pay it back.)

A concerted effort to avoid giving the contract to an architect with talent

Building the Palais according to Le Corbusier’s principles — such as making walls moveable and designing the place as a machine for living rather than for impressing outsiders — would have solved many of these problems. It seems from all the evidence that the acoustics would have been the best available at the time.

The story reads like a concerted effort by the League to avoid giving the contract to the man many consider to be the most original architect since Michelangelo in the 16th century. Why wasn’t a second competition held? How was the new team of architects chosen? How much did the building eventually cost? What was the motive for rejecting Le Corbusier — jealousy, bureaucratic fear of brilliance, nationalist or political intrigue, the combative character of the architect himself?

These remain unelucidated in the material I was able to consult in the museum. The case, it seems, is cold.

Early days at the Palais des Nations following its new identity as the European headquarters of the United Nations. (Photo: UN)

As for L-C, “the project for the Palais des Nations led Le Corbusier not only from maison to palais but also to a much more developed consideration of the place of the public building in the urban plan,” according to informaworld. It also started a debate about monumentalism in the U.S. that was to stamp U.S. archictecture for the next 50 years.

Not that I am a fan of the L-C design. It looked to me like what turned out to be the International Labour Organization headquarters up the road from the Palais, but without the curves (which mercifully hide the long corridors). I much preferred the Hannes Meyer/Hans Wittwer submission. This has a plectrum-shaped meeting hall and two tall, thin towers that still seem contemporary. Apparently, I’m not the only one. The School of Design uses the blueprint as the illustration for its book cover.

Links:

Le Corbusier means “crowlike” by the way. He adopted the sobriquet in 1920 that I read probably came from a childhood appellation.

La Maison Clarté, Le Corbusier’s only housing construction for Geneva, in Rive.

Wikipedia also has articles on L-C’s other buildings in Switzerland, including the one in Geneva above (1930-32) that represented his only apartment construction in the city. The Maison Clarté in Rive forms part of the collection declared as World Heritage designs by Le Corbusier in 2016. Our Crosslines article: Geneva’s uncelebrated, prizewinning forerunner of prefabricated housing (LINK).

Inside the Maison Clarté

Peter Hulm is deputy editor of Global Geneva.

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