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An Ode to Olmsted in Orange

Christo’s ‘Gates’ not possible in sprawl America

March 9, 2005 |
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service


There was a festival atmosphere when Christo and Jeanne-Claude unfurled The Gates in Central Park last month, producing a new merger of commerce, culture, and conviviality.

From everywhere, people flocked to New York City last month to experience the extraordinary installation in Central Park by the environmental artist Christo and his wife, Jeanne-Claude. For two weeks until February 28, 7,500 16-foot gates draped with saffron-colored banners wound along the 23 miles of walkways that grace the inspired design of 843 acres in the center of Manhattan.

This was an urban art spectacle like we’ve never seen. Every apartment dweller or institution with a park view had a party. School, bike, and hiking trips were organized daily. Hotel rooms were full. The excitement and anticipation was everywhere weeks in advance. On the weekend of the unfurling, the crowd was just enormous.

The celebration and civic energy that attended Christo’s banners was entirely unique for this city and this country. It was more spontaneous, more authentic, and more heartfelt than the scripted openings for a new stadium or a convention center or a corporate tower. This was about being urban and New York. It was about art, culture, the life of the city, the life found only in the center, and not at all possible on the sprawling periphery. This was a genuine celebration of the city itself and the pure form of urbanism that New York represents.

Saffron Lyric To Urbanism
The Christo extravaganza, in fact, was another example of the decade-long rediscovering nationwide of vital, stimulating, authentic civic spaces that animate our lives. Though we are told America is now a suburban nation, our people are now pouring into downtowns from Portland to Boston, from San Diego to Miami, from Dallas to Philadelphia. Saturday afternoon on Michigan Avenue in Chicago now is a colorful, energized civic parade of people who just want to be there, on one of America’s grandest streets, for an event, to shop, to eat, or just to find new adventure.

It’s not unusual that some people, like the thousands of folks moving back to Denver, are discovering the liveliness of living downtown, attracted by the ability to walk out their front door, perform errands on foot and in good time, walk to work, meet neighbors or friends, have a drink or take in a show. That kind of vitality does not come through the windshield of a car. The reanimation of these centers across the country reflects the appeal of the diversity, vibrancy, and walkability that so many more Americans hunger for.

In other cases, Americans are migrating from suburbs to rural areas and small towns to gain that intimacy. The demographic shift has become so intense in the most beautiful parts of the South, West, and Midwest that a new politic has arisen to prevent the very sprawl that the new migrants were trying to escape in the first place.

Olmsted As Inspiration
Ironically, Frederick Law Olmsted, arguably this country’s most influential landscape architect, designed Central Park so New Yorkers did not need to go to the country for the experience of quiet forests and open spaces. He knew instinctively that great urban centers provide opportunities for leisure and active recreation, for people to connect, congregate and communicate, and for people to gather, explore and discover something new. Great urban centers compel people to stay.

It was entirely fitting that Christo sought Central Park, Olmsted’s durable statement about the intimacy of place, for The Gates installation. Christo has created many dramatic environmental installations, such as wrapping the Berlin Reichstag in white fabric or placing colorful umbrellas around a California valley. He has long dreamed of installing The Gates but was denied the opportunity by prior mayors until he was finally encouraged by current Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Christo and Jean-Claude spent $21 million of their own money but, according to estimates, may have earned the city as much as $200 million. 

Engineered Air
Other impressive numbers include the 116,389 miles of nylon fabric hung like curtains from 60 miles of hollow vinyl frames mounted on 5,920 tons of steel footings. The gates rested only on the paved paths, avoiding grass and trees. Within this well crafted maze of materiality, people strolled alone or in groups, spontaneously talking to strangers, often winding up in extended conversations. Standing aside to watch the parade of passersby, one marveled at everyone’s friendliness and animated expressions. Cameras recorded daytime, nighttime, and snow-dusted impressions; the park was momentarily transformed and our eyes were opened to a new old place. There was a festival atmosphere, and through The Gates commerce, culture, and conviviality merged. One was irresistibly drawn in, unconsciously compelled to keep walking, to explore both familiar and unfamiliar park areas. Even the most jaded urbanites found themselves walking through the park in new ways.

Christo’s project, in short, honored Olmsted. The Gates magnified the elegant gestures of Olmsted’s pathways. Among Olmsted’s gifts was his ability to create spaces that guide our eyes into the distance. Using grand gestures of curving landforms, arcing pathways and visual corridors carrying our eyes and thoughts through bridges, he subtly seduces us to venture deeper. There was nothing subtle about the Gates, yet Christo’s gilding of Olmsted’s forms allowed us to take in Olmsted’s vision with a power similar to viewing a snowflake through a microscope.

Now the orange fabric has been shipped away, the supports taken down. But the pathways, no longer framed by steel and fabric, still guide us through this original place of beauty, sport, and contemplation at the heart of a great city.

Roberta Brandes Gratz is the author of Cities Back From the Edge: New Life for Downtown. Reach her at livingcity@aol.com. Stephen A. Goldsmith is an artist and director of The Frederick P. Rose Architectural Fellowship Program for the Enterprise Foundation. Reach him at sgoldsmith@enterprisefoundation.org.

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