Looking to get a travel visa, I recently made my way to the Permanent Mission of the Socialist Republic of Viet Nam to the United Nations. Whooshing through the revolving door and into the United Nations Plaza, the usual trappings of New York City office-building lobby life were all present: guards behind the desk, bag checks, Tensabarrier lines, sign-in sheets.
Emerging onto the fourth floor, I again felt a rather familiar feeling descend. The hallways, buffed and polished with ancient strata layers of industrial-strength wax, were lined with solid metal doors, each painted the same, Pantone-exact shade of dark gray. The doors were marked with standardized nameplates, each bearing the name of semi-official, semi-dubious import-export agencies and the like. Entering the Mission, I saw a gilt-edged clock in the shape of Viet Nam to the right, and a florid portrait of Ho Chi Minh to the left (a curious departure, I thought, from the usual practice of putting the current head of state on display). As there was a short queue, the small row of chairs occupied, the man behind the desk ushered me into a nondescript back room, where I leafed through old ASEAN trade reports.
Soon grown bored with rice harvest estimates, I began to think about the aesthetics of the place. From the minute I walked through the doors of 866 UN Plaza, everything had screamed “bureaucracy.” There was the careful arranging of distancing space, the mind-numbing repetition of the décor, the ritualized processes of official engagement. But I wondered: How does it get to be this way? How does bureaucratic design arise? Is it a function of bureaucracy itself, or does it work to further the bureaucratic agenda? Are there official guidebooks that recommend exactly which colors of gray will induce the desired feelings of subordination, alienation and anonymity? Does it have to look the way it does to be what it is?