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Christo and Jeanne-Claude's fabric 'gates' for Central Park: A dream of 26 years becomes a reality.

February 06, 2005|Paul Lieberman | Times Staff Writer

Never. We have until now created 18 projects. We have failed 37 projects. We got a refusal, and we lost interest. Because every project we create is an idea which came out of our two hearts and our two heads. And we create for us, ourselves, and our collaborators. Once it is no longer in our heart, of course, it's finished. And why on earth should we do it? [But] there are projects for which we never lost interest after refusals, many refusals, [like] "The Pont Neuf" [in Paris], which we started in 1975. And that was the last time in our life we have an idea about wrapping. But it took us 10 years of constant battle, and it is only in 1985 we could do it. We started the wrapped Reichstag in Berlin in 1971. It took us 24 years to get the permit, and the following year it was completed. We received three refusals but never lost interest. The same with "The Gates."

What is the key to dealing with New York? Do you just outlast the bureaucracy? Do you compromise?

We don't compromise, but New York is not just the government, it is also the people and the important people. Those movers and shakers in the case of "The Gates" were the Central Park Conservancy. It is a group of very rich, very generous people who have spent $300 million of their own money to upkeep, renovate and make Central Park what it is today. For years, the conservancy did not like the idea, and we did not even talk to the government.

When did you know you had a champion?

Until 2 1/2 years ago, we're telling everybody the next project we'll complete will be "Over the River" for the Arkansas River in Colorado. Then the miracle happened for us. A man who was an old friend and great fan of all our projects was elected mayor, Michael Bloomberg. At his inauguration, while we were kissing each other, he said, "You know, even when I was only a candidate, people were telling me, if you become the mayor, we will see 'The Gates.' " We came home that day of the inauguration, and I remember telling Christo, "Mayor Bloomberg has just inherited the calamity NYC. We are going to leave him alone until June." In March we got a phone call from City Hall and the ball was rolling.

Did you allow yourself a celebration when you got the final green light? You're French, perhaps a champagne toast.

Don't drink champagne because of our stomach. We celebrate, yes. But I can't remember if we had dinner with friends or if we went home and ate the usual doggy bags from the freezer.

What do "The Gates" mean?

One hundred fifty years ago, the city of New York purchased a large piece of land and asked two landscape architects, Mr. Olmsted and Mr. Vaux, to design a park. [Frederick Law] Olmsted and [Calvert] Vaux surrounded Central Park with a stone wall. But from time to time [they] interrupted the wall, there's a walkway. In that interruption it was a plan to place steel gates so that Central Park could be locked at night. But something happened that officially was called the "War of the Gates." The designer chosen by the city submitted a proposal of gates that Mr. Olmsted found so horrible, so elaborate, so ornate. So he left. And then the city decided that no steel gate will be placed. But those openings remained, called gates, until today.

The shape of our gates comes from Central Park. Central Park is surrounded by hundreds of city blocks in a perfectly right-angle geometric grid, north, south, east, west. That grid, you find it in the geometric rectangular shape of our gates. But Olmsted and Vaux designed the walkways in a very serpentine shape. And that you find in the rounded movement of our fabric moving in the wind. "The Gates" in Central Park is absolutely a project for Central Park, in name and in shape.

What about the color?

The saffron color is simply an aesthetic decision. We love that color. We have chosen February because it is the only month of the year where we can be almost sure that there will be no leaves on the branches of the trees. The sun is very low in the sky, giving long shadows. When the sun is behind fabric panel, that will become golden yellow while the portion of the fabric in the shade becomes deep red.

Didn't you originally propose doing it in the fall?

Yes, because to Europeans fall means to fall down. We thought the fall is when the leaves fall down from the trees. But through the years we observed Central Park, in October, November, December, those damn leaves wouldn't fall.

Any last-minute fears?

Our mayor came to our assembly plant and said, "Any problems?" I said, "Well, Michael, the weather." He said, "I'll take care of it." We want to create a work of art, of joy and beauty. And for our workers also it has to be joy. That is why we always say Feb. 12, "weather permitting." A little bit of gentle snow, we can work. But in a horrible storm, no, we will wait.

How many will people will show up?

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