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NAC’s Forward: Art, Experience, and Memory—An Interview with Christo

His art begins with 2,000-page federal government applications and ends with hundreds of miles of transformed landscapes

By Christina Noble, AIA, and Aaron Herring, Assoc. AIA

This article is excerpted from the National Associates Committee journal Forward. The complete text can be found on page 37 in Forward’s spring 2011 edition (14MB download).

By Christo’s account, his and Jeanne-Claude’s massive sculptures are “irrational, foolish, and absolutely unnecessary.” Their temporary, environmental-scale installations are designed without a tangible function. Christo and the recently deceased Jeanne-Claude, collaborators of over 46 years, are the artists responsible for the upcoming Over the River installation, a fourteen-day, 5.9 mile stretch of fabric panels suspended along 42 miles of the Arkansas River in Colorado. The magnitude of mobilizing the labor, environmental studies, travel, communication, meetings, hearings, and permitting required to accomplish these artistic endeavors is disproportionate to the two-week duration of the exhibition. One could argue that Jeanne-Claude and Christo are devoted to an egomaniacal fulfillment of self-expression whose only discernable achievement is massive intrusiveness. Yet Jeanne-Claude and Christo carry on enthusiastically with parental fondness for their artistic labors-of-love.

Christina: How do you find inspiration for your more contemporary projects, let’s say your Over the River project that’s coming soon?

Christo: …Sometimes we have the site - like we had Central Park [forThe Gates]… But sometimes we have the idea, like the Running Fence or Umbrellas or Over the River, for example. We titled [Over the River to suggest the idea of] suspending fabric panels way above the water and then experience the project from the banks of the river walking from above, walking down near the water, or rafting to experience the project above your head…

Most of the great rivers in the United States are born in the Rocky Mountains. The Rocky Mountains divide the water, some of the rivers flow to the Pacific Ocean, some of the rivers flow into the Mississippi River and Gulf of Mexico. In the summer of ’92, ’93, Jeanne-Claude and myself and our friends investigated eighty-nine rivers in the Rocky Mountains in the states of Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, and New Mexico. From the eighty-nine rivers we identified six possible sites...

Now, you should understand all our projects are temporary works of art, design[ed] for a particular season of the year. For example, The Gates project was a winter project because we like to have leafless trees so you can see the gates… The Over the River project was a summer project because we like to have the rafters. The rafters only go down the river in the summer…

By the end of ’96, early ’97 we came to consensus that for aesthetical purposes, construction purposes and many other purposes, this 42 miles of Arkansas River between Salida and Cañon City running east-west was the most suitable for our project…While we have the site of the Arkansas River, we start[ed] working on the permissions. And permission is the most difficult part of our project. Everything in the world is owned by somebody…We [discovered] right away that almost the entire 42 miles of Arkansas River, 98%, is owned by the United States Federal Government Department of the Interior, Bureau of Land Management… The Bureau of Land Management is really in charge to manage the land. Basically they rent the land to states, to corporations, ranchers, … sometimes they even sell the land…Basically, we need[ed] to get permission from the owner, the old leaser - the states of Colorado, a variety of different agencies, and two private entities. During the Clinton administration, we [had] great support from the Department of Interior - at that time the secretary of the interior was Bruce Babbit, former governor of Arizona and a big admirer of our work. Mr. Babbit helped us to move the permitting process.

Actually I remember, [we gave] a presentation about Over the River. He summon[ed] all his employees at ten o’clock in the morning that day, so they could ask questions … but in 2001 something happened for the project we start[ed] in 1979, called The Gates.

The project was start[ed] in ’79…and when a friend of ours for many years was suddenly elected mayor of new York City, Mr. Michael R. Bloomberg, we conserved our all resources to finally achieve permission for The Gates project, this is in 2001… and only in 2006, we return[ed] again to working on the permits for Over the River. At that time it was the Bush administration. We had a very difficult time with the Bush administration, but a number of employees of the Department of the Interior [were] still the same and finally the Bush administration accept[ed] our request for an environmental impact statement…

Our application with the Over the River project is called the Christo-Jeanne-Claude Over the River project the standard/signed planning report. The statement is 2,029 pages and cost us one and a half million dollars. The federal government hire[d] another independent company that we [couldn’t] talk to – [we could] only pay their bills to prepare our environmental impact statement. Our environmental impact statement is part of the very important law signed by the very unusual president for this time in apparently 1970, President Nixon, called the NEPA, National Environmental Policy Act. That law addressed that any human endeavor of enormous size, like building airports, highways, dams, or construction of bridges that they will go to review of national environmental policy act.…This was the first time in the history of the NEPA that ever a work of art had an environmental impact statement. Actually, in the NEPA, art is not part of the discussion… The 16th of July the Federal Government release[d] that study for comments [until September 14th]. [The comments] will be compiled, and classified, for example traffic, wildlife, … and will be given to the federal government, [then] sometime in late April will issue the ROD, meaning the record of decision…But that is only for the Over the River.

That is, each project has its own story.

The complete article can be found on page 37 in Forward’s spring 2011 edition.

Forward welcomes the submission of essays, projects and responses to articles. Submitted materials are subject to editorial review. Please contact the Forward Director, Christina Noble, AIA, at if you are interested in contributing to the next edition in the fall with the theme Adaptation.


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