Complete a Larger Than Life Art Installation?
Engineer, L3H Examiner, Aviation expert, pilot, and founder of geo - Die Luftwerker
Unknowing Parisians and tourists passing through Place Charles de Gaulle must have been bewildered by the appearance of the Arc de Triomphe, wrapped in a shimmering silver fabric.
At first glance, it might have seemed like an elegantly wrapped scaffolding, but it's actually an art installation designed by the late married couple Christo and Jeanne-Claude.
L’Arc de Triomphe, Wrapped was on display for two weeks in late September of 2021. The project involved wrapping the arch in 25,000m2 of fabric, held down by 3,000 meters of red rope. Public opinion of the mummified monument lingers somewhere between extraordinary and hideous. But above all; extremely surreal.
You can imagine executing a project of this magnitude must be costly, and far from child’s play. So, how do you wrap a more than 200 years old monument? We had a little chat with Robert Meyknecht, the CEO of geo - Die Luftwerker, the company that provided the fabric for the project.
How do you produce on a self-funded budget?
While high-profile art projects often receive sponsorships or grants, L’Arc de Triomphe, Wrapped didn’t receive financial aid at all.
"To maintain complete freedom over their art, the couple strove to fund their projects entirely by themselves."
Artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude met in 1958, producing large-scale art installations throughout their lives. Their projects include Valley Curtain (a huge curtain hanging across a highway in the mountains), The Mastaba (7,506 stacked-up barrels floating on water), and other wrapped sites like the coast of Little Bay, Sydney, and the Pont Neuf bridge in Paris.
To maintain complete freedom over their art, the couple strove to fund their projects entirely by themselves, often by selling Christo’s preparatory works for the installations. These works included studies, scale models, lithographs, drawings, and paintings.
Developing the design and raising funds for these huge, costly projects could take decades. For reference, Christo and Jeanne-Claude first conceptualized L’Arc de Triomphe, Wrapped in 1961.
How do you get the right team in place for a project?
Wrapping the Arc de Triomphe was not Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s first Rodeo. So they could turn to parties they worked with before.
Mike Schlaich of engineering firm Schlaich Bergermann Partner was brought on to develop the engineering plan, as previously for The Mastaba. More than 1200 workers were hired to execute the plan, including 140 construction engineers and 95 climbers.
The 25,000 square meters of fabric was provided by German company geo - Die Luftwerker. They previously provided 20,000m2 of fabric for Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s “Big Air Package”, and more than 90,000m2 for “The Floating Piers”.
Robert Meyknecht, CEO of geo-die Luftwerker, recounts:”Even though “The Floating Piers” was a bigger project in terms of square meters of fabric, Arc de Triomphe was much bigger in other ways. The fabric had to withstand all weather conditions, so we used a heavy polypropylene fabric. It was much rougher and thicker than what we’re used to, therefore harder to sew.”
Besides the unusual thickness of the fabric, wearing protective gloves also made it harder to cut and sew the panels. But they had to as the fabric was coated in a layer of aluminum. Besides that, the team soon realized their workspace was too small…
Robert:”We needed space to roll out the fabric, but our workspace wasn’t big enough. The largest fabric panel was draped from the roof terrace of the Arc until the ground, which is 52 meters in height. This panel took 500m2 of fabric, weighing almost 1000 kg. So, we rented a huge hall that was 100 meters in length. Here, we could ensure all the measurements were correct.”
How do you deal with hurdles during project planning?
Obviously, the administration of the Arc de Triomphe had some concerns, demanding that the roof would not be restricted for paying visitors. Moreover, the Centre des Monuments Nationaux and the Comité de la Flamme (chaired by the French military) also had a say as the Arc is a military memorial.
But there were more hurdles. Heavy protection measures ensured that the historic structure would not be damaged. Steel cages and protective anchorage had to be installed, for example.
As if navigating these roadblocks wasn’t enough, nature presented the final hurdle in determining when the project could start.
"The project was delayed a second time to September 2021 because of a pair of breeding hawks that were nestled in the monument."
The original plan was September 2020, but the pandemic and the unfortunate passing of Christo himself delayed the project until Spring 2021. Then, the project was delayed a second time to September 2021 because of a pair of breeding hawks that were nestled in the monument.
Robert:”I heard the hawks used to nest in the Notre Dame, but when it partially burned down they found a new breeding spot in the Arc de Triomphe. Honestly, we were quite relieved that this delayed the project. We had been struggling to finish the fabric before the original deadline, but the delays gave us more than enough time.”
How do you make sure an artwork’s message comes across?
Christo and Jeanne-Claude wanted visitors to be able to experience the installation up close. Touching and feeling the sturdy fabric for themselves would help understand the labor behind the project.
Besides this, over 350 monitors were trained to greet the public that flocked around the monument every day.
From conceptualization to realization, the installation’s development spanned from 1961-to 2021. There is certainly a story to tell, and the Christo and Jeanne-Claude Foundation wanted to make sure no details were left out.
To assist the many tourists, monitors spoke a variety of languages including French, English, Spanish, German, Italian, Bulgarian, Chinese, Greek, Portuguese, and Japanese. Almost a million free fabric samples were also handed out.
According to Anne Hidalgo, Mayor of Paris, more than 6 million people visited L’Arc de Triomphe, Wrapped while it was exhibited.
Not only does this prove excitement for Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s vision hasn’t faded, but it also shows how their work can continue without them. All thanks to the adept project team at the Christo and Jeanne-Claude Foundation.