Berlin all wrapped up in Christo

June 20, 1995|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,Knight-Ridder NewspapersBerlin Bureau of The Sun

Berlin -- When tourist Chong Su of Beijing prepared for his latest visit to Berlin, he made sure the sightseeing agenda included a stop at the gray, hulking Reichstag building. What better symbol of the city's long march through empire and infamy, he figured, than Germany's once and future parliament building, with its bullet scars and weighty architecture.

But when Mr. Chong and two friends arrived yesterday at the vast lawn of the Reichstag, they were dismayed to find some sort of construction work going on.

Not only was the building closed, but workers had covered the front entrance with a huge silver dropcloth, and were preparing to cover other sections as well. Yet, strangely, other tourists seemed downright jubilant about it all.

Then a passer-by filled them in. The "construction project" was actually a momentous work of art in the making -- Christo's "Wrapped Reichstag." By the end of the week the building would be cloaked from top to bottom by a million square feet of silver fabric.

Mr. Chong was not impressed.

"I would rather see the whole building," he said. His disappointed friends nodded, then snapped away with their cameras while there was still some building left to be photographed.

The rest of Berlin, however, seems suitably impressed by the work so far, turning out by the thousands to take a look, or following its progress through live television updates and front page newspaper stories as artist Christo (full name, Christo Javacheff) directs his rappelling team of mountaineers.

Judging by the public debate over what the event symbolizes, Christo is stirring the sort of buzz he seems to relish most, whether he's putting pink collars around islands in Miami's Biscayne Bay or stretching a fabric fence down the ridgetops of the California coast.

The wrapping of the Reichstag began Saturday, but has since proceeded slowly. On Sunday the work was stopped altogether by rain and gusty wind. Yesterday was sunny, but tricky winds continued, thwarting the work enough to leave gawking onlookers desperate to cheer almost any sign of progress.

The loudest applause came when a big silver roll curled down over the Reichstag's main entrance, covering the words "Dem Deutschen Volke" (To the German People), which were crafted 101 years ago by melting down two cannon barrels left over from the 1813 war of liberation.

But during most of the day the chief activity to be seen was the workers in their hard hats and tool belts, tugging and straightening fabric at rooftop curves and corners like hotel maids grappling with unruly bedsheets. Nonetheless, cameras clicked and whirred, and television crews from around the world scurried for better vantage points.

The unpredictable Berlin weather is only the latest obstacle for Christo in a 24-year struggle.

He proposed the project in 1971, then spent the last 18 years of the Cold War being either rejected or discounted by the politicians who would have to approve his plans. Meanwhile, the Reichstag sat mostly empty, housing a small museum and occasionally serving as host to ceremonial parliamentary gatherings. The Berlin Wall ran just to the east of the building, separating the Reichstag and neighboring Tiergarten from Brandenburg Gate, which sat forlornly just inside East Berlin.

When the Wall came down in 1989, the Reichstag enjoyed a brief moment of glory as a centerpiece of the events leading to German reunification. The new attention revived Christo's plans and, in February 1994, the German parliament surprised the country and Chancellor Helmut Kohl, who opposed the idea, by voting to let Christo go ahead. It seemed to be as much an attempt to display a sense of broad-mindedness and even whimsy as to make any statement about art.

Christo has said all along that he wanted to wrap the Reichstag because of its great symbolism. The building has indeed seemed to be at the center of German history during its 101 years of existence.

To Kaiser Wilhelm II, around for the building's construction, the Reichstag represented the "summit of bad taste." The Kaiser didn't object so much to its architecture as to its parliamentary inhabitants. He had little use for democracy, and the Reichstag only solidified the parliament's existence.

The beginning of the ill-fated Weimar Republic in 1918 was first announced from a window of the Reichstag by a leader of the Social Democrats. But in 1933, the new chancellor Adolf Hitler used a fire in the Reichstag to make scapegoats out of the Social Democrats and lay claim to absolute power, even though later evidence indicated the Nazis set the fire.

The next lasting image of the Reichstag came in May 1945, when a photographer snapped victorious Soviet soldiers mounting their flag atop its the roof, with the city below in ruins. Then came the Cold War, with the Reichstag sitting by the main line of confrontation.

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