Christo's Plan for Wrapping the Reichstag

WITH Dacron rope and a million square feet of silvery fabric, the artist Christo wants to wrap the Reichstag in Berlin, transforming the massive parliament of the Prussians into a "light and dynamic structure" that's "breathing" in the breeze.

Christo's problem, though, is that he's chosen a building so loaded with symbolism that even after more than 20 years of trying to explain his ideas to Germany's politicians, he still hasn't won their necessary approval for the plan.

Now the artist who surrounded Florida's islands with pink polypropylene says he's launching an all-out, last-ditch effort to convince Germany's parliament to say yes to the Reichstag wrapping. On the advice of his most important supporter, parliamentary president Rita Sussmuth, Christo has set up camp in Bonn, lobbying deputies one at a time whenever the parliament is in session.

Timing is everything because he wants to complete his draping - for which he needs 18 months lead time - before construction of the new government quarters begins on the very doorstep of the Reichstag.

Moving the German capital from Bonn to Berlin calls for the renovation of the Reichstag itself, which will eventually house the German parliament, and the erection of about 30 city blocks of government buildings in the surrounding area.

"The landscape will look very different by the year 2000. I'd like to wrap the Reichstag I've known for the last 20 years," Christo recently told an audience at the new art museum in Bonn.

The Reichstag, that "banal Victorian structure," as Christo describes it, is the complex German psyche set in stone.

Built by Bismarck to display Prussian greatness, burned under Hitler, destroyed in the war, and reconstructed in the 1960s, it embodies German 20th-century history.

During the cold war, when the Berlin Wall ran right along the Reichstag's backside, it came to symbolize divided Germany and remained unused by Germany's politicians. But when the wall tumbled in 1989, the Reichstag suddenly stood for freedom, democracy, and German reunification.

For all these reasons, the Reichstag is too hot to touch for many politicians. Helmut Kohl has resolutely declared that, as long as he remains chancellor, Christo will never succeed in wrapping the building.

"This monument of German history may not be packaged just for the fun of it. The Reichstag must remain removed from private interests," says Burkhard Hirsch, a deputy in the German parliament and member of the Free Democrats, the junior partner in Kohl's coalition government.

Since unification, the Reichstag has become a "sleeping beauty" that no mortal can touch, Christo said in an interview. Politicians see the Reichstag "as so full of meaning and symbolism that no human being can even be close to that building to interpret it."

Christo's project was turned down three times prior to unification, but for a different reason, he explains.

"During that time, the project was like an embarrassment to the politicians, because [I was] focusing on a building that was related to the curse [the division] of Deutschland," Christo says. "It was unthinkable in German minds that one day they would witness, in their lifetime, unification of their nation."

Yet it's this very East-West symbolism that first inspired Christo to wrap the Reichstag.

The Bulgarian-born American artist has been intrigued with the idea of wrapping public buildings since 1961. But Michael Cullen, an American art dealer in Berlin and now manager of the Reichstag project, planted the idea of wrapping the Reichstag when he sent a postcard of the building to Christo in 1971.

"I'd never been to Berlin before. Of course, I was very excited at that photograph, that structure, because for me - living for 21 years in Bulgaria and escaping to the West in 1957 - it was so significant," Christo says.

"Even though I'm an American citizen, I feel myself a very displaced person and truly very interested and moved by the incredible continuous presence of East-West relations. All our misery and drama and good inspiration was coming out of this relation, this imbalance."

Christo says that behind all his projects stands some personal motivation, and the East-West link in his life is what connects him to the Reichstag.

But, he goes on, he wants to wrap this Berlin monolith mostly for aesthetic reasons.

He likes the fact that it's set off on its own at the edge of Berlin's Tiergarten park, with an expansive lawn in front and the empty, former no-man's land in back.

The wrapping, he says, will bring out the basic structure of the building. Because the material will be mounted on a frame around the Reichstag, he says, the fabric will be in continuous motion from the wind.

The actual wrapping would take place quickly, over a course of four days in a good-weather month like August or September. Christo calculates he'll need about 200 rock climbers to unfold the thick reflective fabric in segments from the roof. In the end, the shimmering surface will "mirror the people, mirror our society, mirror our time."

When it's done, he wants it to stay up for two weeks, including two weekends.

"For 14 days, the German nation will discuss what? First, they will discuss good art or bad art.... This will be a tremendous relief from the Germans discussing trivial problems of unemployment, garbage strikes, and all kinds of everyday difficulties," Christo predicts.

"Second, they will discuss their history.... I feel that after 45 years, the Germans, as a great nation with a fabulous culture with incredible intellect, can and should be looking back and facing that building. They are capable, sophisticated enough to relate to the historical reference of their own nation."

BUT Peter Ramsauer, a parliamentarian and member of the conservative Christian Social Union, argues that if the project goes through, the talk will be about the stupidity of such spending when the country is in the midst of a severe recession. "The public won't understand such waste," Mr. Ramsauer snaps, who refers to the wrapped Reichstag as "superfluous rubbish."

Christo would characterize such comments as typical misunderstandings of his work. He is offering to pay all the costs associated with the wrapped Reichstag himself. When he lobbies deputies he explains that the $6- to $7-million cost of the project is financed entirely by the sale of his drawings and collages of his early works and plans for the Reichstag.

Another part of his sales pitch is that all of his materials will be recycled after the wrapping is taken down, and that he will hire locals (about 500 to 600 people) to execute the draping. But his main point, he says, is to convince the deputies that his wrapping is a work of art that will not "put down" the Reichstag.

"They say that the wrapping of the Reichstag will hurt German dignity. That is not true," Christo says. "On the contrary, all my works for the last 30 years were uplifting works of beauty, joy.

"For example, when I surrounded the islands in Miami in 1983, I did not ridicule or put down the 11 islands in Biscayne Bay," he says. "When I wrapped the Pont Neuf in Paris, I did not ridicule or put down the bridge in Paris."

As proof, just look at Jacques Chirac, mayor of Paris and a staunch opponent of the Pont Neuf project, Christo says. When the bridge was wrapped, "everybody was happy and Mr. Chirac was kissing babies on the Pont Neuf!"

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