Christo wrapped up in plans to sheathe Berlin's Reichstag building in fabric

January 07, 1993|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,Berlin Bureau

BERLIN -- Christo, the avant-garde artist who has wrapped everything from Florida islands to the Pont Neuf bridge in Paris, will launch today his last campaign to shroud the revered Reichstag parliament building here in about a million square feet of silver-colored fabric.

"It will have a very Gothic quality, like a Gothic sculpture," says the ever-enthusiastic Christo, a Bulgarian-born New Yorker who has grown famous without ever bothering to use his last name, which is Javacheff.

He would have his acres of nylon-like cloth drop down the Victorian stone walls of the 98-year-old Reichstag "like a waterfall."

"The fabric will be in constant motion like a breath against the walls," he says.

His project is something like proposing to sheathe the Capitol in Washington with Mylar to reflect the multitudinous egos within, then painting the White House blue.

The Reichstag is an imposing stern-gray block of Victorian neo-classicism that still bears scars from fighting at the end of World War II.

A German journalist at a preview of an exhibition of Christo's work that opens today called the building "a symbol of German democracy that didn't work."

Adolf Hitler seized power from the parliamentary democracy of the Weimar Republic in 1933 after the Reichstag burned in an arson fire the Nazis blamed on the Communists after setting the fire themselves. Heavily bombed in World War II, the building was reconstructed and rededicated in 1971.

It was a potent emblem of Bismarck's united Germany when it was erected in the 19th century. It retains its potency today as a symbol of the reunited Germany.

Christo, who is 57, has been trying since 1972 to get permission to wrap the building. It is not certain that he will get it now.

In 1987, German Chancellor Helmut Kohl vowed that the Reichstag would never be wrapped while he is in office. But Mr. Kohl's spokesman said yesterday that the chancellor would not interfere.

Most important, Christo has enlisted the support of Rita Suessmuth, president of the Bundestag, the German equivalent of the U.S. House of Representatives.

By virtue of her office, she is the landlord of the Reichstag, as Christo puts it. She will help open the exhibition of his works today at the Akademie der Kuenste, the old East German Academy of the Arts, which is housed in the even older stables of the German kaisers.

The show is timed to coincide with the decision of a jury on the choice of an architect for the reconstruction of the Reichstag, readying it for use once again as the permanent meeting place of the Parliament when the government moves here from Bonn at an as yet undetermined date.

Christo hopes the Akademie exhibition will encourage enough positive reaction to sway the jury of 23 architects, politicians and others in favor of his project. The group does not have final authority, but it may issue a non-binding recommendation.

The final decision probably will be made by a kind of inner circle of the Parliament, the Council of Elders.

"This is the last chance," Christo says. "If we do not create the right chemistry to get broad support, we will fail and the project will not be realized."

He doesn't want to wrap a reconstructed Reichstag.

The Akademie show includes drawings of his projects such as the "Surrounded Islands" in Biscayne Bay off Miami, which were skirted with 56.5 million square feet of pink polypropylene in 1983; "Running Fence," 24.5 miles of 8-foot-high nylon draped across Marin and Sonoma counties in California in 1976; and "Pont Neuf Wrapped," a relatively small packaging of the bridge with 440,000 square feet of gold-colored fabric that shimmered in the Paris breezes over the River Seine.

The show also includes a depiction of "The Umbrellas: Joint Project for Japan and U.S.A.," a simultaneous display of 3,100 immense blue and yellow umbrellas in California and Japan in 1991.

The umbrella project had its unhappy side. It was dismantled after an uprooted umbrella crushed a tourist to death in California. A crane operator was electrocuted in Japan during the dismantling.

After 30 years of work, Christo says, he still has trouble convincing "the cultural elite" that he is a serious artist.

His works have the power to induce fierce skepticism before they are constructed and popular enthusiasm after they are in place.

He would employ a couple of hundred "rock climbers" to drape the Reichstag and would spend $6 million to $7 million of his own money on the project, he says. He hopes to get the money back from selling sketches and drawings of the work.

He wants to wrap the Reichstag in late August or early September. The work would go fast and would have great visual impact, he says.

"It will not be boring. It will not be dull," he says. "We will create a completely new vision of that place."

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