Can you imagine discussing a work of art before it physically exists? How do you measure its effects on the viewing public before anyone can see it? Can anyone formulate an opinion, good or bad? As Architects and designers we know all too well the feeling of futility when our works are judged and rejected before they are given the chance to materialize. Twenty seven years ago Christo Vladimirov Javacheff (known simply as “Christo”) and Jeanne-Claude, a married couple who created environmental works of art, knew this feeling as well. Some of you will remember their temporary art installation known as “The Umbrellas”. The project was envisioned in two parts, like a traditional painting where two canvases make one work of art. It was meant to highlight the similarities and difference in the ways of life and the use of the land in two inland valleys of the U.S. and Japan. The very sunny, dry landscape in Southern California, and the very wet landscape, full of water in the Ibaraki Prefecture.
In October of 1991, 3,100 umbrellas both in California, along interstate 5 between Gorman and the Grapevine, and Ibaraki opened to full bloom. Giant pops of yellow and blue were scattered across their respective valleys. In the California vastness of uncultivated grazing land, the configuration of the umbrellas was whimsical and spreading in every direction. The brown hills are covered by blond grass and in that dry landscape, the umbrellas were yellow.
In the limited space of Japan, the umbrellas were positioned intimately, close together and sometimes following the geometry of the rice fields. In the luxuriant vegetation enriched by water year round, the umbrellas were blue.
“It’s very important to have a very living landscape, living meaning that there are villages, and towns, and highways and bridges, all kinds of man-made structures to have a relation to the scale of the umbrellas. In the wilderness we never know how tall is the umbrella, how wide is it.” Christo said. Each umbrella was 19 feet 8 inches high and 28 feet 5 inches in diameter. Quite an impressive sight indeed.
There was one downside, a windstorm toppled one of the umbrellas, killing a woman from Camarillo, and causing the team to call for an early end to the project on October 27, 1991. For a period of eighteen days, the umbrellas were seen, approached, and enjoyed by the public. People had picnics under the umbrellas and others were even married under their luminous shadows. As I drive up and down the Grapevine today I can only imagine the beautiful sight of golden blossoms those umbrellas provided.