The Kaufmann Conference Center, a masterpiece by Alvar Aalto located on the top floor of an office tower across from the United Nations headquarters, was saved from destruction last year, thanks to the efforts of local preservationists. This vital piece of New York's architectural heritage was commissioned by Edgar Kaufmann Jr in 1964 and donated to the non-profit Institute for International Education (IIE) when it first occupied the tower.
One of only three surviving Aalto works in the United States, the Center offers an extraordinary setting for lectures, seminars, and award ceremonies. The soaring 4500 square-foot space is bathed in natural light filtered through a geometrical wooden grid on! tall windows that open onto a terrace overlooking the East River. Aalto's trademark ribs of cobalt blue tiles impart a lively rhythm to the angled wall that faces the bank of elevators. Sliding walls divide this lobby from the main reception hall and two small conference rooms, allowing them to be used separately or together. The white stucco ceiling undulates up to a peak of 22ft; the walls fan out, and their pale ash panelling is overlaid by ribs of clustered birch rods.
Aalto wanted to simulate an entire forest within this room but was limited by city fire regulations to a single arboreal group of bent birch laminas that evoke a grove of trees. The components were fabricated in Finland, and assembled on site by the building's architects, Harrison Abramovitz & Harris. Aalto and his wife Elissa designed every detail, including a buffet table that echoes the profile of the reception room, suspended light fittings, torcheres that cast a soft glow, and moulded door handles.
Though the IIE still occupies two floors, it sold the building in 1998 to a Japanese charity that threatened to dismantle Aalto's interior and donate the fragments to a museum in order to redevelop the space for commercial lease. That disaster was averted, and the Japanese sold the building back to the IIE. The NY Landmarks Commission is presently considering an application from the regional branch of DoCoMoMo to give the interior landmark protection and permit public visits.
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|Publication:||The Architectural Review|
|Date:||Feb 1, 2002|
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