The United Nations urgently needs to upgrade its historic European headquarters, whose grand exterior masks rusted pipes, outdated wiring, leaky windows and rickety lifts, the head of the Geneva complex said on Friday.
U.N. Director-General Sergei Ordzhonikidze said the Palais des Nations, originally built to house the League of Nations, has many problems that are not visible to the naked eye.
"To many people the building looks sound," he told a news briefing inside the complex that attracts some 100,000 tourists and hosts more than 11,000 meetings a year on topics ranging from disarmament to economic development to humanitarian aid.
The Palais des Nations' oldest section was built between 1929 and 1938, with annexes added in 1952 and 1973.
"Most of the electrical installations, wiring, pipes, sanitation and windows in the old building have passed their life span," said Ordzhonikidze, a former Soviet diplomat. "The materials used are not durable and are disintegrating."
The Swiss government has donated $150,000 for a study of the building's looming renovation needs in 2009, after which time
a funding request could be sent to the U.N.'s 192 member states.
Any facelift would not start until the nearly $2 billion effort to renovate the U.N.'s main New York headquarters wraps up in 2013. Project manager Michael Adlerstein said the work to bring the New York site to modern health and safety standards is now about $100 million above its $1.877 billion budget.
Ordzhonikidze declined to estimate a price tag for work in Geneva, though last year he told Reuters in an interview that the renovations could cost more than $1 billion.
U.N. facilities are often neglected because governments are loath to spend aid money on upgrading buildings at the expense of other projects like distributing life-saving food and drugs.
Last year controversy erupted over a reported 20 million euros ($25.6 million) donated by Spain to refurbish one of the Palais des Nations' meeting rooms with an ornate ceiling painted by Spanish artist Miquel Barcelo as a gift to the U.N.
Ordzhonikidze said that while the world's financial and economic crises had thrown some cold water on refurbishment discussions, the Geneva building's disrepair would only become more costly to address the longer U.N. member states wait.
"This is a very unfortunate time," he said.
The U.N. system spends $15 billion a year on peacekeeping operations and aid and research programmes. Under its 2008/09 budget, Geneva received $9 million for maintenance and repairs despite having asked for $26 million.