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UN in Geneva’s future visitor centre hopes to improve dialogue with public

24 Apr 2024
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UN in Geneva’s future visitor centre hopes to improve dialogue with public



UN in Geneva’s future visitor centre hopes to improve dialogue with public

By Stéphane Bussard


An immersive and innovative welcome centre conceived several years ago by banker and philanthropist Ivan Pictet is set to be opened in early summer 2025. With multilateralism in crisis, the project, now under construction, is seen as a means of highlighting its importance in solving global issues.


International Geneva may boast several iconic buildings, including the Palais des Nations, the Palais Wilson, the World Trade Organization’s Centre William Rappard and the imposing structures where the International Labour Organization and the World Health Organization are housed. But till now,  it has never had a true welcome centre representing the bulk of its ecosystem. That's about to change. 

The Portail des Nations, (Nations Gate), in discussion since 2019, aims to fulfil this mission as of July 2025. It will spread over 3,000 square metres, with 2,000 sq m of planned indoor space and include several pavilions. It aims to explain what multilateralism is and its purpose at a time when it may not be easy to do so. Geopolitical blocs have re-emerged, and global solutions are struggling to assert themselves. The centre also aims to elucidate what international Geneva is and its vast network of international organisations, United Nations agencies, NGOs, and private sector actors that strive toward good global governance.


In the ambassador’s shoes 

Genevan philanthropist and banker Ivan Pictet had first come up with the idea. For him, the crisis in multilateralism did not diminish the relevance of the Portail des Nations. On the contrary, he said, it would help demonstrate the importance of the UN, “the only organisation capable of solving global problems through dialogue”. The portal, he added, would show that the UN has an impact on people’s daily lives, though “few (people) are really aware of it”.

Within Geneva's microcosm, it is common to assert that the city is the powerhouse of the UN system, implementing political decisions made at headquarters. For Ivan Pictet, formerly chairman of the UN Pension Fund Investment Committee in New York: “Without Geneva, New York would not exist.” International Geneva even formulated a leitmotif, presenting itself as the lab for the sustainable development goals, whose Agenda 2030 was adopted in 2015 by the UN General Assembly. 

Compared to the buildings in Nairobi, Vienna or even New York, which content themselves with organising guided tours, the Portail des Nations will be particularly innovative. It will offer two tour options, a shorter one lasting an hour and a half, and another to be over three hours. It will tell the story of international Geneva, its unique characteristics and the global challenges to be addressed, including migration, climate and health. 

The centre will communicate differently by offering visitors an immersive and multimedia experience. “Visitors will be able to step into the shoes of a country’s permanent representative and vote on resolutions. It’s a way to identify with the work done daily at the UN,” said Tatjana Darani, director of the Portal des Nations Foundation. The idea, she added, ”is not to present the UN as a perfect organisation, but to present honestly its strengths and weaknesses and why it makes sense to support it.” 

“Screens will show real-time migrant flows,” added Pictet.

Tatiana Valovaya, director of the UN Office in Geneva, explained: “At a time when distrust of public institutions is prevalent, the UN in Geneva decidedly chooses openness and strives to find new ways to disseminate the fundamental message of the United Nations.”


Plans budgeted at CHF 31 million 

Construction of the visitor centre has begun, with the first mechanical shovels breaking ground on the UN site. The entrance will be located on the Place des Nations, allowing the historic entrance to the UN to be somewhat restored. The Portail will consist of several modular pavilions with terracotta and wooden roofs. The site is intended to be sustainable and self-financing. With a cost of CHF 31 million and designed by the Geneva-based firm Charles Pictet Baptiste Broillet Architectes Associés, it will be donated to the United Nations, which will be the sole operator and owner. The UN General Assembly accepted the donation in December 2020. While Ivan Pictet is the main donor, other actors are contributing to the creation of the Portail, including an anonymous Geneva-based foundation and the Loterie Romande. 

“I don't aspire to have a mausoleum in my name”,  joked Ivan Pictet. In June 2022, prerequisites made by various parties drove up the costs of the proposed structure, before downsizing became necessary. Security issues had long preoccupied some UN officials in New York. Faced with various difficulties and requirements, some even wondered if the Portail des Nations would ever come to fruition.

The foundation hopes to attract 250,000 visitors per year, which would nearly double the current attendance at the Palais des Nations, estimated at 115,000. With all visitors, except for schools, expected to pay, the site will be profitable with as few as 230,000 guests per year. The inauguration may take place at the same time as the full reopening of the Palais, which has already been under renovation for several years, at an estimated cost of CHF 837 million




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