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A Christo Wrap on Reichstag : After 23 Years and Several Rejections, the Artist's $8-Million Dream of Covering Berlin's Highly Symbolic Legislative Building Is Finally Becoming a Reality

June 10, 1995|MARY WILLIAMS WALSH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BERLIN — Say this for the Germans: They aren't into hiding things.

Most are brutally open when it comes to talking about their country's past. And given the pretext of hot weather, astounding numbers of them peel down to their underwear--or less--on any available beach, lawn or meadow.

So now, here comes a Bulgarian getting ready to conceal the Reichstag, Germany's once-and-future legislative temple, beneath a custom-fitted tarp. What gives?

The answer, of course, is Christo, the 59-year-old conceptual artist who 20 years ago built the 24-mile "running fence" across Sonoma and Marin counties, and who in 1991 studded the landscapes near Los Angeles and Tokyo with 3,100 giant blue and gold umbrellas.

After 23 years of arm-twisting, sweet-talking, cultivating "the right" politicians, dreaming, sketching, working out technical problems and fund-raising in his inimitable way, the artist is about to embark on his latest project: wrapping Berlin's massive and emotion-laden Reichstag in nearly 120,000 square yards of silvery gray fabric, enough material to cover 13 soccer fields.

Set to begin at dawn June 17, rolls of shiny, aluminum-coated polypropylene will stream down the facades of the Reichstag, Christo promises, "like a waterfall." Tugging the fabric into position and tying the many pieces in place with 10 miles of thick blue rope should take Christo's staff of about 220 four days. Between 60 and 90 experienced mountain-climbers will see to the trickier parts.

The Reichstag will then lie in state under its 68 tons of billowing pleated polypropylene for two weeks; 4 million sightseers are expected to come and have a look. A thousand-odd guides will answer their questions, 24 hours a day.

Then, on Day 15, the wrapping will come off. It will be recycled--this type of polypropylene is normally used for industrial filters--and the site will seem in every way as before. It is the impish-looking Christo's practice, in all of his landscape-altering mega-projects, to remove any evidence that he was ever there.

"We hope to create a beautiful work of art," says Christo, speaking for himself and his wife, Jeanne-Claude Christo, his seemingly tireless agent, manager, spokeswoman and partner. "Proportion. Color. Form. Movement."

"We want to see it because we believe it will be beautiful," Jeanne-Claude adds. "That is why we are doing it."

Christo's previous giant exercises in colored nylon and polypropylene have had a certain beauty in the eyes of many. But the Reichstag?

The building's past is anything but lovely. Kaiser Wilhelm hated the Reichstag, which was completed in 1894, even though its mixed-up architectural style is known in Berlin as "Wilhelminian." The Nazis are believed to have torched it in 1933 in an arson attack that was then used to justify Hitler's subsequent crackdown on all forms of dissent.

Marshal Zhukov's Red Army troops made the Reichstag their ultimate prize as they rushed toward Berlin in the spring of 1945, and they nearly destroyed it before they managed to raise a hammer and sickle on its smoldering roof.

Then came the decades of Cold War division, when the Reichstag stood unused and forlorn--"a mausoleum," Christo has called it--its grandly pillared eastern facade bumping incongruously against the concrete banality of the Berlin Wall.

Not really the stuff of artistic inspiration, and yet it was just this unhappy history that drew Christo's attention in 1971. An admirer in Berlin had sent him a postcard of the building. Christo, an emigre from Bulgaria, was living in New York at the time, fresh from wrapping a statue of Leonardo in Milan and in the throes of conceiving his "Valley Curtain," a suspension of 430 yards of orange nylon between two Colorado peaks.

He had never been to Berlin, but he says that he instantly saw in the building on the postcard "a Sleeping Beauty carrying an incredible potential of symbolic power."

"If I had been born in Nebraska, probably this building would mean nothing to me," he adds. "To me, East-West relations are very important. If there had not been a Cold War, I would not be here in Berlin, talking to you."

In 1976, Christo and Jeanne-Claude came to Berlin to scout the Reichstag and hold exploratory talks with West German politicians. In 1978, Christo began making sketches of what the Reichstag might look like under wraps.

But few West German decision-makers were convinced of the merits of those early drawings or the concept that drove their maker. Christo was sent packing by three successive presidents of the German Bundestag--the position is roughly equivalent to the U.S. Speaker of the House--in 1977, 1981 and 1987. Chancellor Helmut Kohl declared that as long as he headed the German government, no one would wrap the Reichstag.

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