Defiance and Delight: How Christo’s Art Sparked Joy on an Architectural Scale

Monumental, vivid and accessible, Christo took art to an architectural and urban scale.

Nathan Bahadursingh Nathan Bahadursingh

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Christo, the Bulgarian artist renowned for his large-scale, fantastical environmental installations, which often included wrapping landmarks and landscapes in fabric, has passed away due to natural causes at the age of 84. 

Spanning a career lasting over six decades, Christo collaborated with his wife and artistic partner, Jeanne-Claude, planning and executing projects across the world. Taking years and sometimes decades to complete, their work was monumental, wondrous, and at times illegal. 

Christo and Jeanne-Claude at the site of their Wrapped Reichstag project; image via Christo and Jeanne-Claude

In June 1962, for one of their first projects together, the pair blocked a narrow street in Paris with a wall of 89 oil barrels in protest against the recently built Berlin Wall. Algerian War of Independence protest demonstrations were also taking place in Paris at the time.

Called The Iron Curtain, the blockade temporarily obstructed most of the traffic of the Paris Left Bank. The pair was refused permission to create the installation and continued regardless, until the police demanded they remove it. 

Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Wall of Oil Barrels – The Iron Curtain, Rue Visconti, Paris, 1961–62; photo: Jean-Dominique Lajoux © 1962 Christo

While it’s clear that Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s oil barrel wall was a political statement, the duo claimed that their projects contained no deeper meaning aside from their aesthetic impact.

They were open to interpretation, serving the greater purpose of adding beauty and new ways of seeing the familiar across both urban and rural landscapes. This freedom lent itself to the myriad of captivating and playful projects that temporarily transfigured buildings, bridges, landmarks, sea coasts, city parks and geologic formations. 

Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Surrounded Islands, Biscayne Bay, Greater Miami, Florida, 1980-83; photo: Wolfgang Volz © 1983 Christo

Some of Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s most notable works include the Valley Curtain, The Pont Neuf Wrapped, Wrapped Reichstag, Running Fence and The Gates. With Surrounded Islands in 1983, a total of 603,870 square miles of pink fabric were used to surround a series of islands in Miami’s Biscayne Bay.

And, following Jeanne-Claude’s passing in 2009, Christo realized a project the couple had first envisioned in 1970. Called The Floating Piers, a vibrant floating walkway of yellow fabric was suspended on floating docks that stretched for almost two miles across a lake in Italy. 

Christo and Jeanne-Claude, The Floating Piers, Lake Iseo, Italy, 2014–16; photo: Wolfgang Volz © 2016 Christo

Experiencing the work of Christo and Jeanne-Claude came at no cost. Their installations were widely accessible and funded entirely by the sale of their own artwork. They crafted public displays that could be both admired from afar and closely interacted with. For brief moments of time, Christo and Jeanne-Claude altered the way we can interact with the world’s most ingrained and timeless features. They bridged worlds, bringing art to an architectural and urban scale. 

Though the visionary couple is no longer with us, their work will continue. Christo’s latest project, L’Arc de Triomphe, Wrapped, will see Paris’ Arc de Triomphe cloaked with 25,000 square meters of recyclable polypropylene fabric in silvery blue and 7,000 meters of red rope. It is on track to be completed by September of next year.

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