Work in Progress: Christo's Wrapped Reichstag

In 1971 the artist Christo and his wife Jeanne-Claude received a post card. On it was a picture of the old German parliament building in Berlin, the Reichstag. At that time barely ever used, standing only metres from the Wall, it caused them great excitement.

"I escaped from Eastern Europe to the West and even today, looking back over 30 years, all my existence is because there was a Cold War," says Christo. He had already wrapped a number of public buildings, including the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art in 1969, but in an earlier statement, Christo had put forward the view: "The only truly public building is a parliament or a prison." So here, as he puts it, "everything clicked."

As he sits in his sumptuous offices opposite the Reichstag, vast drawings and sketches lining the walls for inspection by well-heeled prospective buyers, Christo has a lot to look back on. His first formal application to wrap the building was in 1977. It failed, as it was to fail again in the 1980s, hitting the dual buffers of West German political antipathy and East German bureaucracy (the building's eastern wall was technically on GDR territory, and they saw the project as an example of western boastfulness).

Meanwhile, the Christos sped around the globe, wrapping coastlines, monuments, the Pont Neuf in Paris, erecting thousands of umbrellas in Japan and California, a huge curtain across a Colorado valley and surrounding several islands in Florida with 6.5 million square feet of pink polypropylene. They are regarded as the founding geniuses of installation art, the original and best exponents of an artistic philosophy which removes creative appreciation from the galleries and plants it into public consciousness.

His formula for creating these temporary works has echoes of Robin Hood. Christo draws, models and makes collages of his intended sites and - through patient and skilful marketing over the decades, masterminded by Jeanne-Claude - is today one of the highest-priced living artists, with agents in Germany, Holland, Switzerland and the US. An original drawing of the Reichstag in pastels, chalk and charcoal on paper measuring perhaps 10 feet by four may cost $220,000. Even a small sketch, 9" by 6", can be $9,000. In this way, the Christos are currently raising the estimated $10 million price of wrapping the Reichstag (including a naturally astronomical insurance premium).

After many years of patient lobbying and influence-building in Bonn, the Christos finally won a full session's debate in the German Bundestag in February 1994, where the project would be allowed to proceed, or categorically rejected. On the pro side was German President Rita Süssmuth, a long-time supporter who had partly engineered the debate. Against her stood Chancellor Kohl, who produced the German equivalent of a three-line whip, in order to maximise the presence of objectors.

In a dramatic and eloquently argued debate, supporters including Peter Conradi of the SPD held that the project would be an opportunity to mark the transition from the past to the future Germany; Freimut Duve (also SPD) concluded the debate with a stirring speech urging the parliament to seize this moment to show that Germany can be relaxed and light-hearted in its treatment of history. Others protested that a national monument should not be the subject of "artistic experimentation."

It was a time of unbearable tension for the Christos, but also one of immense satisfaction. "In a way, this was the most marvellous description of why the project should be realised," says Christo. "All these different people have their own interpretation of the project; they are all valid, legitimate interpretations. That is the most incredible part of the Reichstag project, and of all our projects, to see the way that they build their own identity, their own reality, which would be impossible to invent."

The vote was won by 292 to 223, with nine abstentions. And so the process of creating this long visualised work could begin. Architects, planners, engineers, fabric designers, climbers expert in restoring high buildings and lawyers were hired to consult on the job. They determined that it will need 75,000 square metres of thick high-strength woven polypropylene fabric and 8,000 metres of blue polypropylene rope.

The Christos wanted the fabric to be silver coloured and so the team researched techniques for coating this enormous area. They discovered an obscure technical process known as 'vacuum chamber vaporisation', in which a tablet of aluminium is heated inside a vacuum chamber until it vaporises, at which point the fabric is rolled past a window at high speed, receiving a coating of the metal measuring 100th of the thickness of a human hair. Five hundred metres of fabric can be treated in two minutes, and the entire 75,000 square metres will use up a mere 3.5 kg of aluminium.

Meanwhile, the architects and engineers have been conducting detailed inspection of the Reichstag's every external facet. The stone has unknown properties (construction records were lost during W.W.II), and so they have decided to anchor the unfolded sheets through the windows and onto the internal walls on their way down, before being secured with concrete blocks at the base of the building. The climbers will exit through the roof, onto specially-made platforms, before abseiling down along with the fabric, and knitting each panel to the next with a series of plastic buckles - similar to those used on rucksacks, where one part clicks into the next. Finally, the joins will be closely sewn together with polypropylene thread, to make them "as invisible as possible," says project director Wolfgang Volz.

Finally, on June 17 1995, the wrapping will begin. Christo and Jeanne-Claude will have celebrated their joint 60th birthday four days earlier ("it is just an incredible situation, unbelievable" says Christo about this 36 year relationship with a woman born on the same day) and the Reichstag will remain wrapped for two weeks, covering both the longest day and a full moon on 28 June. Later that summer, reconstruction work will begin on the building as it prepares to become the German parliamentary building once again, an event currently scheduled for some time after 1998, at which point it will become totally impractical to wrap

After 23 years of waiting, the Christos now radiate euphoria that their wishes have at last been granted. "This is a great historical event," says Christo as he takes a sip of scotch and soda and Jeanne-Claude leaves the room to complete another sale to a German buyer. "This is the first time in the history of art or parliamentaryism that there was a debate over a work of art which does not exist. This is a credit to the German nation, that in 70 minutes of debate the distinguished elected personalities of the German nation articulated why the project should happen, why the project should not happen, and it is exactly for all these reasons, for and against, that we like to wrap the Reichstag.

"Until 1989, the building was a mausoleum, a structure with no possible use in the German mind. It had not any vitality, it was like a sleeping beauty. Nobody believed at least in their lifetime that they would witness what has happened only very recently. And of course the greatness of the project is that we kept alive - even though in 87 we had the last refusal - we kept the last hope that one day we can do the project and when the Wall fell down, the building developed this huge potential, which nobody expected. It was like a reviving force, which comes from these tremendous changes in the world."

The Christos live in exciting times, and there is an undeniable exhilarating in watching them add to the excitement in their own fantastical way.