Wrapped up in their work

Photograph by: Manfred VollmerCorbis Words by: Harvey McGavin Big buildings don't just stand there. They rise above us, loom over us, reminding us of the monumental wealth or ego or power that went into their construction. They're talking all the time, sending out signals in their silent language, telling us things.

Churches and museums are the quiet ones, talking in calm, well-spoken whispers. Supermarkets and shops shout like street traders, office blocks chatter endlessly, exclusive residential developments boast loudly of their specifications. In the city, where they jostle for space, all talking at once, it can get deafening. Wouldn't it be nice if sometimes they would just shut up?

Built in the 1890s, burned in 1933 and bombed in 1945, Berlin's Reichstag reeked of history - a symbol of a nation deluded, defeated, divided and reunited. Like an old man, it had lived through two world wars and seen too much. It had too many memories and stories to tell. It really needed to lighten up.

Then, in 1995, along came the artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude. Like architectural tailors, they dressed it up in 100,000 square metres of of made-to-measure silver polypropylene, muted its appearance and made it quieten down.

Shrouded like that, the Reichstag lost the details that defined it, surrendered its power and became just a shape billowing in the breeze.

Inevitably, Christo and Jeanne- Claude get called "wrap artists". They have covered the Pont Neuf in Paris, trees in Switzerland, a medieval tower in Italy, and the Museum of Modern Art in Chicago. They strung a curtain across the Colorado desert, put pink skirts around a group of islands in Florida, and planted lines of 3,000 20ft umbrellas through the Japanese and Californan countrysides.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude are an artistic double act to rival John and Yoko or Gilbert and George for eccentricity. They are married and have worked together for 40 years, sometimes claiming they are the same person and were born on the same day - June 13, 1935.

But for Christo, who had escaped from Communist Bulgaria as a young man, "Wrapped Reichstag" had special associations. He first had the idea in 1972 and spent 23 years negotiating, cajoling, planning and raising the $11 million needed to do it.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude do not accept private or public sponsorship - everything is financed by the sale of preparatory drawings, scale models, and prints. The people who assemble the work, from professional rock climbers to labourers, are all paid. But the people who come to see it don't have to pay. If it looks like a present - a giant parcel, tied up with 10 miles of blue rope - that's because it was. And a conundrum. One and a half million paid nothing to see something being hidden.

"There is no moralising or justification," they say of their projects. "No one can buy or own them. No one can charge tickets. They are an expression of freedom." They do what they do out of "love and tenderness for what will not last, like childhood".

Twenty-three years of planning and $11 million for something that lasted just 14 days. The other buildings couldn't believe it. Some of them still talk about it to this day.


artists' homepage: www.beakman.comchristo

Reichstag home page: www.reichstag-info.de

BBC coverage of re-opening of Reichstag last year after Norman Foster redesign plus history:

http:news6.thdo.bbc.co.ukhienglishworldeuropenewsid%5F322000322967.s tm

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