When the Swiss author Alice Rivaz (1901-1998)
described his character in Alain Saintagne’s office,
her natural choice was the austere building of her
own employer, the International Labour
Organisation (ILO), located in what is today the
Centre William Rappard. Alice Rivaz (born
Alice Golay) worked at the ILO until 1959, when
she became a full time writer. Her novels and
short stories include colourful portrayals of Geneva
and the international organisations, her life as a
typist in the ILO, relations with her colleagues and
an ostensibly inflexible boss, and the ascetic
atmosphere of the Centre William Rappard –
which she described as a caserne, a military barrack.


Likened by some to a jail and by others to a fascist-built hospital, my place of work is to my eyes more like Isabel Allende’s house of the spirits. Ghosts wandering through the endless corridors, taking a nervous break in the Salle des Pas-Perdus, assisting circumspect delegates in a meeting room, pacing up and down the park under the colossal plane trees, sometimes shouting at each other, hiding their frustrations, or laughing with friends on the sunny terrace. Thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of people who worked, met, discussed here and defended the interests (or the fears) of their governments and institutions. Famous people who visited the building, from Pope Paul VI to the Ras Tafari (Haile Selassie), from King Baudoin and Queen Fabiola of Belgium to the Prince and Princess Takamatsu of Japan and Nelson Mandela of South Africa. Labour and religious leaders, prime ministers, parliamentarians, people who changed the lives of millions in their countries, Mayors and civil servants of Geneva, renowned artists like David Alfaro Siqueiros and writers like Albert Cohen. Diplomats and politicians like William Rappard and Albert Thomas. Private entrepreneurs and lawyers, economists, physicians, and other experts. Anonymous spirits shaking hands and speaking with the many soft and musical accents of the world. Staff members of the ILO, UNHCR, GATT, WTO, and the library of the Graduate Institute (formerly HEI). The special spirits of those who offered their lives for international causes, like Guido Pardo, an ILO secretariat member who died of typhus during a mission to Russia in 1922. Bright civil servants and shadowy employees like myself who spent our professional lives between these walls. Car les pierres aussi ont leur politique wrote the art critic Paul Baudry in a review of the building’s architecture in 1926, we can read these intimate lives in the construction materials.

Dans son bureau il faisait si sombre qu’il aurait pu allumer en attendant qu’on lui apportât ses journaux à découper. Mais il aurait voulu rester là longtemps, – il était très en avance, – immobile entre sa table et sa chaise, une main dans une poche, les dents serrées sur une nouvelle cigarette, regardant devant lui comme s’il examinait la grande carte murale.

Alice Rivaz,
Nuages dans la main (1940)


Protected by the genius sculpted by Maurice Sarki on the north façade, the ghosts in the Centre William Rappard are grateful to the Swiss architect George Épitaux (1873-1957).

WTO Open Day
Sunday, 6 September 2009
from 10:00 to 18:00

On 6 September 2009 the WTO will open its doors to the public for the first time. The aim is to bring the WTO and the people of Geneva together for a family event and to explain what we do, who we are, and how the WTO affects the daily lives of millions of citizens around the world. Activities include: a short film on the WTO, Q/A with the DG, a guided tour of the artworks of the Centre William Rappard, an exhibition about the role of the WTO, international trade and the WTO membership, international buffet. Staff members and families of international organizations are invited to actively participate in the Open Day. Centre William Rappard, Rue de Lausanne 154, Geneva.

Commissioned by the League of Nations, Épitaux designed his huge classical Florentine villa, with a serene ambiance of the interior courtyard, multiple sculptures, mouldings and enigmatic decorations by artists and artisans. The architect’s ghost is happily chatting with the stern “Justice” and “Peace” female statues at the entrance by Luc Jaggi, the three graces on the lake-side façade, and the workers in the roundels representing different trades by Léon Perrin. The artists commissioned by governments and institutions to paint their breath-taking murals and frescoes discuss each other. Jorge Colaço is working on his tiled panels “Vindima”, “Lavoura” and “Pesca”, while Seán Keating paints himself in a dark corner of his mural on labour, and Dean Cornwell and Gustave-Louis Jaulmes light up the sober atmosphere of the conference rooms with their humanised vision of industry, manual labour and the arts. Gilbert Bayes and his naïve “Blue Robed Bambino” are shocked by Eduardo Chicharro y Agüera’s female Pygmalion and the exquisite nudity of Galatea. The workers who offered Albert Hahn Jr.’s Delft panel are engaged in unending theology debates with those who commissioned Maurice Denis to paint his “Dignity of Labour”. A noisy phantom crowd.

Lunch time. I am up for running through the Jardin Botanique but in this warm summer midday I sluggishly decide to have a siesta under the glorious Atlas cedar of the park. However, noise comes from lively spirits. Some protest against trade rules and globalisation, others want to stop the WTO work to expand the building. A guard (not a ghost) suggests I should clear the area. I see the ancient Bloch and Rappard families in their stately villas. Tourists, students, workers. The meanest and the greatest of men and women in the history of this building. They are the ghosts in the Centre William Rappard.

I am thankful to Anthony Martin (WTO Publications and Website) for the editing.

© 1949-2009 UN Special