Rare U.S. interior designed by Alvar Aalto
New York City’s significant mid- 20th century architecture and design is notably lacking in recognition, which is why the Historic Districts Council is advocating for the landmark designation of the Edgar J. Kaufmann Conference Center designed by renowned Finnish architect Alvar Aalto (1898-1976).
Aalto was the most important Finnish architect of the 20th century and a central figure in International Modernism, famous for his marriage of the naturalism of Finnish Romanticism with modernist ideals. The Conference Center is the only example of this master’s work in New York City and one of only four Aalto structures remaining in the United States.
The space is an artistic entirety; everything in it was designed and produced by Aalto to create a harmonious effect. Serene and light-filled, the curved forms of ash and birch create an abstract forest-like sculpture of sinuous bent wood. Combined with blue porcelain tiles and modern yet humanistic lighting, the Conference Center is without a doubt an architectural gem -- one the City of New York should be proud to call its own.
Located within the Institute for International Education (IIE) at 809 United Nations Plaza, the intact rooms are some of the most significant post-World War II spaces in New York, of importance and influence on modern design. The rooms were commissioned in 1961 by Edgar J. Kaufmann Jr., a scholar and patron of modern architecture and design, whose family commissioned “Fallingwater” from Frank Lloyd Wright. Aalto’s resulting design is typical of the architect’s best work.
Located on the 12th floor of the IIE, the Conference Center is accessible to the public when used as a space for functions and events. From weddings and cocktail receptions to lectures and alumni events, guests are able to enjoy the Center year-round. The IIE invites visitors to the space quite frequently for Fulbright scholarship interviews, and the Finnish Embassy hosts its annual holiday gala there in honor of Aalto, who remains a source of great national pride for the Finns.
The Historic Districts Council and other preservation organizations have led an ongoing campaign to preserve this interior space; yet despite its historical and architectural significance, the Kaufmann Conference Center remains unprotected.
This proposed interior landmark was heard before the Landmarks Preservation Commission nearly seven years ago on November 20, 2001. The Center still lies in preservation limbo, eagerly awaiting the LPC's official designation. Until then, this space remains vulnerable, unprotected and largely unknown to many New Yorkers.
The Historic Districts Council's website has a section dedicated to the preservation of the Aalto-designed Kaufmann Conference Center: http://hdc.org/aalto.htm. (Mar. 2008)