Art defies architecture at Reichstag

Germany/ the big wrap
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The spectacle had hardly got under way, but already the crowds began to gather yesterday - curious and enthusiastic, sceptical and contemptuous.

Television helicopters clattered overhead, and T-shirts were sold on the ground. After 24 years, the show is finally on the road. Christo, the Bulgarian New York dreamer and Woody Allen lookalike, has at last begun wrapping the building that he set his heart on. The once and future German parliament building, the Reichstag, yesterday began to disappear from sight, in the cause of art.

This is the biggest and probably the last of Christo's wrapped-building projects. For Berlin, it is much more than just an artistic event. It is a prelude to the full-scale rebuilding of the city. It serves as a halfway stage between the old, divided Germany and the new, united Germany, whose parliament, still marooned in Bonn, will in a few years' time move into the Reichstag - after an interval of 60 years. The wrapping - involving 200 workers, including 90 professional climbers - will be completed within a few days. Then, after a fortnight of wrapped Reichstag, the building team of the British star architect, Sir Norman Foster, moves in full-time, to give a high-class revamp to the building, outside and in.

Right up until the last moment, when the parliamentary vote was taken in February 1994, the Christo project was very much in doubt. The parliamentary group of the ruling Christian Democrats voted against, at a party meeting. Chancellor Helmut Kohl was a clear opponent - he did not even reply to Christo's letters. So was Wolfgang Schauble, Mr Kohl's nominated successor. Could anybody imagine British MPs allowing the Palace of Westminster to be wrapped? Mr Schauble asked the parliament. Most German MPs did not seem bothered: 292 voted in favour, 223 against.

The city fathers of Berlin see the wrapped Reichstag as an advertisement for the openness of the city itself - or, put differently, as a prelude to its becoming a world capital once more.

Christo - and, still more, the hoteliers of Berlin - hope for half a million visitors in the next few weeks. Christo himself carries the entire cost of the project, reckoned at around pounds 5m, financing it from the sale of his drawings and sketches over the past 20 years.

The wrap king was born Christo Javacheff, in Gabrovo in Bulgaria, 60 years ago this month - on the same day as his wife, Jeanne-Claude, with whom he works on all his projects. Increasingly, the two artists insist that they are to be regarded as one: Christo and Jeanne-Claude.

Years are spent wooing politicians, tickling them till they stop saying no. Christo was rebuffed by the West Germans in 1977, 1981, and 1987. According to the flame-haired Jeanne-Claude: "We could have bought ourselves a Rolls-Royce, diamonds and castles. Instead, we buy materials, pay engineers, and everybody we need, in order to create a new work."

The whole operation has been organised with military precision. The 100,000 square metres of specially manufactured polypropylene, weighing 60 tonnes, was held secretly at a former Soviet air base - allegedly, in case of potential sabotage - before being brought, under police escort, into Berlin for yesterday's wrapping. The date was filled with yet more deliberate symbolism: it is the anniversary of the East German workers' uprising in 1953, which was brutally crushed by Soviet tanks.

But not all Berliners are keen. Across the city, again and again, you hear the same three phrases. The wrapping of the Reichstag is quatsch - "nonsense". "All that money could have been much better spent". And: "The traffic jams are terrible".

Still, Christo has a retort, even for the complainers. He has repeatedly used the same gag. "I promise you that everybody will be happy. Eighty per cent will be happy when the Reichstag is wrapped. Twenty per cent will be happy when it is unwrapped."