[Editor’s note: For the most recent information on visiting UNESCO, as of April 29, 2016, please see this Bonjour Paris article.]
I had the good fortune to spend a full day at UNESCO and now I can share with you what is one of the best kept secrets in Paris.
UNESCO is classified as the intellectual agency of the United Nations that was created in 1945. Their goal is to help establish peace in an uncertain world. It was understood that a lasting peace could not be based on political and economic agreements alone. A commitment was needed to help promote moral choices and to educate the world’s youth. The undertaking to achieve cultures of peace, non-violence, tolerance, acceptance and mutual respect are the building blocks to a peaceful future.
The main entrance for UNESCO is at 125 avenue Suffren just a short distance from the metro exit Ségur (ligne 10). If you lock your passport in the hotel safe be sure to bring a valid driver’s license or some other valid picture identity card since this is required for their security check-in.
On your way to UNESCO take the time to look at the extraordinary photographic exhibit along avenue Suffren. The title is Cultivating a culture of peace – the Alfred Fried Photography Award. This exhibit marked the start of the celebrations to honor the 70th anniversary of UNESCO and it will continue until the 31st of December 2014.
As you enter the main lobby, turn to the right so as not to miss the acrylic on wood painting done by Pablo Picasso in 1958. The piece is titled La chute d’Icare (Fall of Icarus) and it was commissioned by UNESCO to decorate their permanent headquarters. The painting is made up of forty wooden panels and covers a surface of almost one hundred square meters. (The flight of Icarus is a tragic tail from Greek mythology.)
On each floor there are interesting and meaningful pieces of art that have been donated to UNESCO or purchased by the organization. Their collection now numbers more than 500 items. It is varied and includes works of art by Miró, Matta, Calder, Chillida, Giacometti, Moore, Cruz-Diez, etc. In 2004, the “Works of Art and Special Projects Unit” was created to ensure the management, conservation and dissemination of knowledge for the collection.
An extraordinary wool tapestry designed by the artist Le Corbusier is located near to the entry hall for the Executive Board. It was donated by Switzerland in 1962 and was made at the Pinton Frères workships in Aubusson. The tapestry is an abstract that represent the layout of the buildings at the UNESCO headquarters in Paris. The design is simple and organized with solid colors that contrast well and provide the observer a sense of empty and filled spaces.
One of the most important works by Guayasamin, Las Manos (Mothers and Children), was donated by the Guayasamin Foundation in 1993. The painting is an impressive piece at 4.75 meters by 6 meters and is acrylic on wooden panels. Regarding this piece, the artist wrote: “Sorrow, fear and despair mark the faces of these women and mothers of the cities of the Third World whose children lie coldly shot dead; children, whose eyes, livers and hearts were torn out to be sold to the highest bidder; their children, sons and daughters, victims of violence, of suppression and torture by civilian and military dictatorships and victims of bestial war; millions of children who die of starvation and from easily cured diseases walk the streets and the dry land without schooling…….victims who do not even understand their pain…” The Las Manos painting hangs in the entry hall for the Executive Board.
After a morning tour of the most prominent pieces in the UNESCO collection, it was time for lunch. On the seventh floor there is a café and a restaurant. Both offer spectacular views of the Tour Eiffel, the cour de l’École Militaire and the dôme des Invalides. The café is small and intimate with light fare and beverages. The restaurant has a limited menu with a daily price fixed special that averages 23 euros. Their à la carte menu ranges in price from 26 to 35 euros. The food is classically french, well prepared with fresh ingredients and beautifully presented. The café and restaurant are privately operated and although they are not open directly to the public, you can reserve in advance. It just takes a bit of preparation to call ahead and organize for security clearance. With such good food and magnificent views, it is not only great for lunch but it is an ideal location for private party events and receptions.
The next part of my day was to get a glimpse of the conference rooms and the general working dynamics of UNESCO followed by a tour of the grounds.
The splendid Symbolic Globe monument is situated on the piazza of UNESCO. It was built in the centre of Copenhagen by 10,000 delegates who had come from all over the world for the project. The idea was conceived by Erik Reitzel and the Globe is constructed from a special type of aluminum specific for the sculpture. The Symbolic Globe was installed in 1995.
I was familiar with the Globe but I had no idea that there is a Japanese garden on the grounds. The Japanese garden was created by Isamu Noguchi and is UNESCO’s Garden of Peace. Of historical note, is that this is the first garden created by a sculptor. Noguchi was born in Los Angeles and spent his childhood in Japan before returning to the United States. The garden was donated by the Japanese government. A traditional Japanese garden is never viewed as a whole. It is supposed to be a space that is discovered gradually. By contrast, the design of this garden allows for the garden to be viewed in its entirety. It has three axes from the platform to a place set aside for an open-air tea ceremony and all of the plants were selected carefully so as to resemble the natural landscape in Japan.
Next on the day’s agenda was to see the two current indoor exhibits; “60 years of DNA” and “DIVE into World Heritage 3D”. Last year was the sixtieth anniversary of the discovery of the double helix of DNA, the tenth anniversary of the completion of the Human Genome Project and the tenth anniversary of the adoption of the International Declaration on Human Genetic Data and Human Rights. “60 years of DNA” is a comprehensive and fascinating exhibit on this topic.
The other current exhibit, “DIVE into World Heritage 3D”, brings to life the magnificent world of majestic images. The exhibit takes you behind the scenes to learn just how those stunning 3-D images were obtained.
I was at last in the final phase of my day at UNESCO and it was to end on a high note in Salle 1 in the main lobby of the first floor. The Orchestre d’Harmonie de la Musique de la Police Nationale was performing along with two choirs, the Choeur Capriccio and the Choeur de Wolfratshausen. These choirs are made up of children between the ages of eight and twenty from France and Germany. Isabelle Aboulker, masterfully prepared the oratorio of 1918 l’Homme qui titubait dans la guerre (the man who staggered in the war). This performance was a beautiful and moving tribute to all who had sacrificed their lives during World War 1.
UNESCO has an extensive website in several languages so you can easily check to see if there is an exhibit or performance of interest. The exhibits are usually at no fee and cultural events are moderately priced. There is no fee to visit the grounds including the Garden of Peace and the Symbolic Globe. In addition, there is a book and gift store with items not found in your typical tourist shop.
The address for UNESCO is 125 avenue Suffren, 75007. The closest métro is Ségur, (ligne 10). Their website is http://en.unesco.org
The Restaurant de l’UNESCO telephone number is 01 45 68 16 00
photos by Loui Franke
Loui Franke is author of Parisian Postcards: Snapshots of Life in Paris.