Out of Germany: Reichstag wrap artist says he'll pack 'em in

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BONN - 'Say nothing. We know nothing,' the adviser muttered hastily to his neighbour, a Woody Allen look-alike, as I approached the suddenly excited little group in the gallery of the German parliament at around 10.30am last Friday, to ask about the news.

But the outburst of hugs and laughter in the entourage of the Bulgarian-born artist Christo revealed everything, even before the results of the vote were officially known. Christo had won his battle, after more than 20 years. The man who has wrapped everything from a bridge over the Seine to islands off Florida can now proceed with his most remarkable and improbable project yet: the wrapping of the once-and-future German parliament, the Reichstag in Berlin.

For two weeks in spring, at a cost of around pounds 4m, the Reichstag will be covered in 100,000 square metres of (eastern German) material, which will be put in place by more than 300 climbers and building workers over a period of four days. Last week's vote was the culmination of a tireless campaign by Christo and his supporters dating back to 1971, when an enthusiast in Berlin sent him a postcard of the building, which then stood almost abandoned, close to the Berlin Wall.

The costs, as always, will be borne by Christo himself, who makes his money by selling his sketches and drawings to collectors and galleries worldwide. Then, once the building has been unwrapped, work will begin on rebuilding and extending the Reichstag, according to designs by Norman Foster. The parliament will probably move from Bonn to Berlin, after many hesitations over the last two years, in around 2000.

Love it or loathe it, the achievement of Christo's dream looks set to be an extraordinary event. Chancellor Helmut Kohl has long made it clear that he detests the idea. Indeed, when Christo wrote to the German leader asking for a 10-minute meeting, as part of a ceaseless lobbying campaign in recent years, he did not even receive an acknowledgement from the Chancellor's office, let alone a personal reply. Half a dozen letters to Mr Kohl's aides also went unanswered. Now, though, it is the Chancellor, who was present for the debate, who has been snubbed, with a number of his own MPs voting in favour.

The opponents of the plan had seemed, until a few weeks before the vote, to be in the majority. Mr Kohl's close ally, Wolfgang Schauble, told parliament that wrapping the Reichstag would offend the dignity of the building, a 'symbol of Germany's history'. In any case, he suggested, 'so many people wouldn't understand it . . . ' Another opponent argued: 'One just doesn't do that kind of thing.'

One opponent of the plan asked, before the debate: 'Would you English allow your Houses of Parliament to be wrapped in this way?' To which the answer, one suspects, is 'No.' It is difficult even to imagine the subject being permitted for parliamentary debate at Westminster. But it became clear that, in Germany, conservative and socialist MPs alike do not take their cue from presumed British attitudes to cultural and political taboos.

Freimut Duve, a Social Democrat, was among those who pleaded for the Schauble- Kohl arguments to be rejected, saying that the wrapping of the Reichstag would be a 'gentle signal, to the wounds of our history'. At last, too, 'friendly pictures' from Germany would be seen around the world. Mr Duve emphasised that, on previous occasions, for example, when the Pont Neuf in Paris was wrapped, the opposition had been equally fierce before the event, but evaporated in 'relaxed good spirits' when the event was over. 'Afterwards, everybody was enthusiastic.'

The final result, officially announced almost half an hour after the private hugging session, was 292 in favour, 223 against, in a debate that was much better attended than most of the debates on weighty affairs of state. The supporters applauded, and Christo - still speaking distinctively East European English, after living for 30 years in New York - gave up his attempts to keep the triumphant grin off his face as he was besieged by television crews for interviews.

The wrapping of the Reichstag is officially expected to bring half a million visitors to Berlin, to see and touch what Christo insists will be his last wrapping of this kind. To those who argue that the building is too sacred, Christo retorts: 'If God is a subject of art, then the Reichstag can be. I cannot believe any politician can think the Reichstag more important than God.'

The artist insists, with disarming logic, that everybody will be satisfied once the whole show is over. 'Seventy or 80 per cent will be happy when the Reichstag is wrapped,' Christo says.' Twenty per cent will be happy when it's unwrapped.'