Big cover-up that grows on the locals

BERLIN DAYS

Walking through the streets of Berlin these days, one is soon reminded why the city's most famous avenue, Unter den Linden, literally, 'Under the Lime Trees', gained its name. The sweet scent hangs thickly, overpoweringly in the air.

After weeks of chilly rain, the Berlin summer has finally arrived - not just the lime flowers, but also the traditional, sticky and dusty heat. The timing is impeccable. Just north of the Brandenburg Gate, a non-stop improvised festival has begun (fire-eaters, mime artists, jazz bands and huge crowds). All this in honour of The Big Event, which looks set to be enshrined in Berlin's memory for years.

On Sunday, after all the international fanfare, the protective fence was removed from around Christo's fully wrapped Reichstag, Germany's once and future parliament. Now, the crowds can touch and tug at the giant drapes. Half a million visitors stopped by on the first two days alone. Into the early hours, thousands continue wandering around, gazing at the wrapped and floodlit architectural parcel - 100,000 square metres of specially manufactured silvery material, tied up with bright blue ropes.

Brilliant marketing? Well, yes. Should we mind? Christo continues to insist that the whole project (pounds 5m, and rising) is funded from his own pocket, from the sale of drawings and sketches. And the wrapped Reichstag has given Berliners a curious new kind of pride. "Everybody's looking at us in a positive way. That can only be a good thing," one Berliner said this week.

The wrapping of the parliament building can be seen as a grand form of pyramid selling - without any obvious losers (art collectors apart) if the bubble bursts. Each successful project brings in more money for the sketches for the next project. If everybody decides one day that Christo is an emperor with no clothes, then the drawings will lose value and the projects will stop. But the world will not come to an end.

In sceptical Berlin, the mood has already swung. It is easier to find enthusiasts now than it was on 17 June, when the wrapping began. Eva Christ, a retired secretary, is not untypical. "At the beginning, I was against the idea," she said. "But it's nicer than I thought it would be. It's alive. Now, I find it wonderful." Those who regard the wrapping of the Reichstag as disrespectful - one of the main arguments put forth when German MPs voted on the issue last year - now seem to be in a minority. And even those who still see the wrapping as pointless, or mad, or both, often admire the technical mastery and meticulous planning which the wrapping required.

Philosophical interpretations of the project's "significance" are strictly optional. This is probably the most controversial and most high-profile project that Christo will ever do (his next project is to cover a river in the western United States). But many Berliners are as interested in the ''gee-whiz!'' factor as in the politics of art. Berliners hope, too, that Christo will put them back on the map as a world capital, in a way that even the fall of the Wall failed to do. Shops now stay open for longer hours and at weekends (in Germany, an extraordinary concession). Politicians praise the wrapping as a "magnet". Planes divert their flights in order to overfly the Christo-wrapped Reichstag.

Or rather, the Reichstag wrapped by "Christo and Jeanne-Claude", as we are now supposed to say; Christo's wife must receive equal billing, according to a stern press release issued to every journalist. Indeed, Jeanne-Claude, whose manner is as flamboyant as her husband's is Woody Allen-bemused, implied in a recent interview that she was more important to the project than Christo himself. "Any idiot," she noted, "can have a good idea."

The wrapping may or may not be a good idea (me, I'm in favour; has anybody ever put the notoriously grouchy Berliners in such a good humour before?). Either way, Christo-mania has clearly taken hold. A Berlin paper, the Tagesspiegel, announced last week that Christo would sign reproductions of his sketches for "well-slept readers" at 5am yesterday. The paper underestimated: the queue started forming at 9pm on Tuesday night and stretched one-and-a-half times round the Reichstag by yesterday morning.

Bild, Germany's biggest-selling daily, called for the wrapping to be prolongedbeyond its scheduled 6 July end. "Unfortunately," the newspaper was forced to admit, "the artist is still against."

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