How Christo wrapped the Reichstag

“It was one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen: 100 rock climbers abseiling down the facade of the Reichstag, slowly unfurling this huge silvery curtain.” Thus Christo, who died last month aged 84, described the moment in June 1995 when the final touches were put to his masterpiece: the wrapping of Berlin’s parliament building in more than a million square feet of aluminium-coated fabric, tied up with nearly ten miles of blue rope. “It billows in the wind, it glows in the sun, it is tailored as primly as a dress and engineered as heavily as a battleship,” wrote Paul Goldberger in The New York Times. It is “at once a work of art, a cultural event, a political happening and an ambitious piece of business”.

For all its enduring fame, the project was remarkably short-lived; it stood for only 14 days before the fabric was removed, and all the materials were recycled. Yet the genesis of Wrapped Reichstag stretched back 24 years, to when the building was a sad emblem of a divided city. Built in 1894, as the seat of Germany’s fledgling democracy, the Reichstag was gutted by fire in 1933 – a blaze the Nazis used as a pretext to put the country on the road to dictatorship – and nearly destroyed by the Soviets in 1945. It was partly refurbished in the 1960s, but then languished mostly unused. By the time Christo first visited in the 1970s, it was “the only building straddling both sides of the city”, he told Oliver Wainwright in The Guardian. The Cold War was at its height, and for the artist, who had risked his life escaping from Communist Bulgaria in 1957, this Iron Curtain relic had a special significance: he would later describe Wrapped Reichstag as an autobiographical work.

By then, Christo and his wife and collaborator, Jeanne-Claude, were already renowned for their immense “wrapping” projects. In 1969, they had covered Little Bay outside Sydney, Australia, in fabric; later, in 1985, they wrapped the Pont Neuf in Paris. Their ultimate aim was to wrap a prison or a parliament – “the only truly public buildings”, as Christo saw it. But while Berlin was divided, authorities on both sides proved intransigent. Over 24 years, they worked with six different presidents of the Bundestag, the German parliament, and were refused three times. Then finally, in 1994, shortly before work began to make the building the Bundestag’s permanent home, their petition went to a vote – and was accepted.

Work on the project began in April 1995. They hired engineers, consultants, builders, professional climbers – ultimately, a workforce over a thousand strong toiled around the clock to install 200 tonnes of steel frames and the vast swathes of fabric. To test their plans, they had made a full-scale mock-up of a segment of the Reichstag, at a former Soviet airbase. The project cost $15.3m, funded entirely by the artists’ sale of plans and drawings (“and that was 1995 money”, as Christo later pointed out). They refused corporate sponsorship.

When Wrapped Reichstag was unveiled, the response was phenomenal. Five million people came to see it. It made headlines worldwide and ushered in a global trend for monumental public sculpture; the project was even referenced in The Simpsons. For Germany, Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s work was epoch-making, recalled the curator John Weber. Among the vast crowds around the Reichstag, it was remarkable how many spoke in East Berlin accents: the work “served as a historic marker of the unification of East and West”. The architecture of the Reichstag “represents a kind of Prussian hardness – Germany as it was”, said Paul Goldberger. The wrapped version was almost “an ideal symbol” of the new Germany. It made “lightness and softness” into “characteristics of the greatest monumental power”.