Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
Fifteen years ago, Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s audacious public art installation debuted in New York City's Central Park. We’ll never see anything like it again.
When the artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude arrived in New York City from Paris in 1964, the view of Lower Manhattan from their place aboard the transatlantic liner S.S. France stuck with them. Soon after, the married couple, who dreamed of making installations on an urban scale, decided they wanted to do something for their adopted hometown. Christo sketched out an idea, a drawing over a photograph snapped by Jeanne-Claude. His drawing showed two towers, 2 Broadway and 20 Exchange Place, wrapped in fabric and tied up in rope — skyscrapers packaged like gifts to the city.
The answer from the owners of the buildings: Thanks, but no thanks. Nobody was interested in this oddball idea. The artists also couldn’t find a taker for their proposal to wrap One Times Square, the site of the world-famous New Year’s Eve ball drop. The Whitney Museum of American Art and the Museum of Modern Art likewise demurred.
Undeterred, the artists dreamed bigger. In 1979, with a few successful projects elsewhere under their belts, Christo and Jeanne-Claude once again pitched New York, this time approaching the city directly with a scheme for a different kind of project. With The Gates, the artists imagined saffron-colored flags waving from thousands of gates erected along miles of walkways through Central Park.
Under no circumstances, replied the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation: The Gates was the wrong project, in the wrong place, at the wrong time. In a 1981 editorial, the New York Times concurred: Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s project would risk “extensive damage to a fragile, man-made landscape” and “set a dangerous precedent.”
“[Christo] regards official obstacles as part of the esthetic process of getting the work done and genuinely believes he can persuade officials with his ‘humility’ until art conquers all,” the editorial reads. “Well, we are not persuaded.”
Convincing the proper authorities took another 14 years—and the successful completion of several other projects around the world—but the pair eventually prevailed: On February 12, 2005, Christo and Jeanne-Claude debuted The Gates, a spectacle the likes of which New York had never seen. Over 23 miles of walking paths through Central Park, the artists erected 7,503 gates, each one supporting a fabric flag suspended like a curtain. The gates were each 16 feet tall, giving the project the feeling of major infrastructure. Painted in public-works-department orange, the gates were unmistakably civic in nature.
The artists said that they drew some inspiration for The Gates from the torii gates that line the way to the Fushimi Inari Shrine in Kyoto and other Shinto shrines in Japan. People purchase those gates as an offering for prosperity. The Gates certainly did the job for New York. The installation drew millions of visitors to the city and generated an estimated $254 million for the local economy. That’s orders of magnitude more than the highest estimate of its cost: $21 million, which paid for 5,000 tons of steel, 1 million square feet of fabric, and thousands of hours of labor from workers.
The Gates was a coup for New York. The artists’ sweeping gesture came at a time when the city was still reeling from the attacks of September 11, 2001. The Gates was less an act of healing than an expression of resolve. New Yorkers came together for a public demonstration whose meaning was wide open (and the topic of every conversation). In an era before Instagram or smartphones, it was a live civic spectacle, proof that a vision could serve as a beacon to the public commons. On brisk winter days, the gates fluttered like flags. People rallied around them. Witnessing the gates as a visitor felt peaceful — even underwhelming. It was supposed to be.
Looking back at its rapturous reception, the resistance to The Gates seems even more absurd. The piece was never going to be as destructive as its detractors worried. Its official title — The Gates, Central Park, New York, 1979–2005 — hints at the length and intensity of the campaign New York authorities and residents waged against the project. Every time the idea came up over those years and decades, neighbors along the Upper East Side mobilized against the artists. Never mind that the installation was only ever intended to last two weeks, or that the artists planned to pay every cent of its costs. The answer was always the same. “The Christos have a wonderful racket, but we don’t need them here,” Henry J. Stern, then the Parks and Recreation Commissioner, told the Times in the ‘90s. “If they want public attention, why not try wrapping Trump Tower?”
In 1999, after Christo and Jeanne-Claude employed a social psychologist to conduct a survey of New Yorkers’ feelings about The Gates, one parks department official said that Christo had gone “from post-modern to post-mortem.”
By that time, Christo and Jeanne-Claude had won global praise for wrapping the Reichstag, a monumental undertaking completed in Berlin in 1995. This project was even more audacious than The Gates: German authorities had enough to do to anticipate all of the challenges involved in restoring the Reichstag as the seat of the unified German Parliament without goofy conceptual artists trying to drape it under a curtain. In the end, it took 24 years and the fall of the Berlin Wall for the German government to finally concede to Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s vision.
Virtually any building in the world would have been easier to transform than a capitol building under the Iron Curtain, but that’s what made it so appealing to the artists. Civic conflict was their metier. They never accepted any sponsorship to produce their million-dollar spectacles, subsidizing their works entirely through the sales of Christo’s preparatory drawings. And they worked with the conviction and relentlessness of community organizers.
Jeanne-Claude, who died in 2009, was the driver in their exceedingly complex project-management schemes. In an interview, she once told me about how she persuaded then-Paris Mayor Jacques Chirac to let the artists to wrap the city’s oldest bridge, the Pont-Neuf, in shimmering gold fabric. (She negotiated for nine years.) Jeanne-Claude was insistent about the urgency of their ideas. Her medium might be best described as lobbying.
Like aspiring city council candidates, the artists put in the work, banging on doors and sitting through endless community meetings and hearings. Filmmakers David and Albert Maysles produced documentaries such as Running Fence (1978) that tracked the artists as they trudged through local bureaucracy. For that piece, Running Fence, Christo and Jeanne-Claude designed a 24.5-mile fence that zig-zagged across northern California like a fabric Great Wall. Ranchers who owned the land in Marin and Sonoma Counties — ranchers with whom the artists cultivated a relationship — largely supported Running Fence. The artists’ works often struck a note of solidarity, uniting workers against cold apparatchiks or wealthy gentry. The documentary follows the artists’ meetings with ranchers as well as with state regulators, who were dead set against it.
Artworks such as Running Fence or The Gates leveraged a moment of absurdity against the structures and systems that we accept as rational and given. In order to get to “yes” for Over the River — an unrealized proposal to suspend a fabric drape over nearly six miles of the Arkansas River in southern Colorado — the U.S. Bureau of Land Management required the artists to produce an environmental impact statement. The resulting 1,686-page artifact is a testament to the artists’ dedication to their gentle, poetic visions, outlasting countless NIMBY assemblies and entire government regimes.
Generating that document was the end of Over the River. The BLM approved the project in 2011, but it will never be realized. Christo, who arrived to the U.S. as an undocumented immigrant, canceled Over the River in 2017 in protest of the Trump administration’s policies. Wrapping the Arc de Triomphe in Paris this fall may be the artists’ final project anywhere. It’s hard to imagine even the tenacious Jeanne-Claude getting a project like The Gates done today in New York City, where public opposition to badly needed development has led to a crushing affordable housing crisis.
After two weeks passed and the ephemeral project was concluded, the acidity of The Gates debate looked silly in retrospect. The craziest thing about the project was the idea that anyone would ever resist it. That might be the lasting value of Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s artwork: The artists exposed the folly of hysterical NIMBYism. Today, with the veto power of neighbors at its zenith, their work is more necessary than ever.
The journalist John Tierney called it, kicking the tires on The Gates for a Times essay in 1996, the year after the celebrated Reichstag wrapping but still a decade out from the piece going up in Central Park.
“Here was an acclaimed artist offering to donate a work that would delight throngs of strollers, offer spectacular views, create jobs and provide cash to the city,” Tierney wrote. “How dare he!”