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Wild about Saffron: Revisiting Christo and Jeanne-Claude's "The Gates"

New York City: a February Tuesday in Central Park. 55 degrees and sunny… (originally posted February 21, 2005)

By Kristen Richards, Hon. AIA, Hon. ASLA
June 2, 2020


Editor’s note: With Christo’s passing at his home in New York City on May 31st, it seems a timely moment to share my personal wonder while wandering his and Jeanne-Claude’s “rivers” of saffron that flowed through Central Park in 2005. I hope you get a sense of that wonder (words in [brackets] reflect changes since original posting). Originally published February 21, 2005. – kr

 

 

No matter what the nay-sayers say, it is magic.

 

On a Tuesday in the middle of February [2005], you would have thought it was a Sunday in the middle of July – but for the winter coats and baby buggies wrapped in thermal-plastic layers. I joined the thousands of people meandering through Central Park.

 

Many of us New Yorkers should have been doing something much more work-like – but it was a perfect day to play hooky in the park. (And, I dare say, there wasn’t a pang of guilt among us.) I entered the park at East 86th Street, planning to spend an hour or so wandering. Four hours later, I found myself at 5th Avenue and Central Park South, having talked to dozens of people from around the city, around the country – and the world (my French and Italian still work).

 

Perhaps this is what makes The Gates such a happening. Total strangers striking up conversations, debating the merits of such an undertaking, whether the city and the parks department should have embraced such a project, and is it really art – or just o-o-o-h-ing and a-a-a-h-ing to each other.

 

A lone, silvery-gray stretch limo – windows open – slowly glided by. It was Christo and Jeanne-Claude, who financed the entire venture, surveying their “golden rivers.”

 

School groups gathered around any number of the 200 “monitors” lining 23 miles of park – gatekeepers, really – who are as friendly and passionately informative as the best docents at any cultural institution or mouse-eared theme park, their pockets filled with handouts like fact sheets and 3-inch-square saffron-colored swatches of ripstop fabric (apparently not DuPont Nylon).

 

The gatekeepers carry 7-foot-long telescoping poles topped by day-glo tennis balls used to unfurl any one of the 7,500 “sails” that might get wound around its lintel after a wintry gust of wind. An added (and probably intentional) function: from a distance, the poles look like Seussian contraptions designed to signal the presence of a gray-vested docent of Whoville.

 

Most of the park drives are closed to traffic for the duration. For $20, you can hop on and off jolly red trolleys wending their way through the park. One lone taxi made its way past the barriers, and was – very quickly – encircled by police cars that seemed to materialize from nowhere, lights flashing. (One had to wonder what planet he came from not to notice the barriers and large signs announcing the closures – or the preceding weeks of news reports about this “event,” including never-ending special traffic announcements.)

 

There are staggering statistics about what went into making The Gates. The fabric swatch handouts alone – 1 million of them – cost somewhere between $40,000 and $48,000 (depending on what gatekeeper you talked to). All the materials are going to be recycled. Not one hole was drilled into a pathway. The list goes on and on – links below offer loads of information – and opinion.

 

Souvenir items – postcards, keychains, watches, t-shirts, etc. – [were] available at various locations in the park and online; proceeds [went] to New York City Parks. As of Sunday, February 20, there were 484 items on e-Bay. Swatches start at $0.99; there is one swatch going for $100 – offered by some poor soul in Washington, DC, who says: “This is the only piece we've seen available from this unique world famous public art event! (Needless to say, they’ve had no bids.) Never mind the barbarians who cut their own swatches from The Gates near Columbus Circle, or the unfortunate 15-year-old who tried selling one of the cardboard tubes...and we’re sure to hear more.

 

Some may say The Gates is nothing more than a temporary eyesore; orange shower curtains or construction cones. Purists should find their way to the Ramble – not one drop of saffron can be seen.

 

Would Frederick Law Olmsted have approved? Architect (and great granddaughter) Janet Olmsted Cross told me he would. I’ll leave it to the pundits to praise or criticize for posterity. All I can say is that for 30 blocks on a sunny February afternoon, The Gates made me smile. To me, that’s magic.

 

 

Kristen Richards, Hon. AIA, Hon. ASLA, is co-founder and editor-in-chief of ArchNewsNow.com, launched in 2002. From 2003 to 2016, she served as editor-in-chief of Oculus magazine, the quarterly journal of the American Institute of Architects New York Chapter (AIANY). Among her many previous incarnations, she was news editor and a feature writer at Interiors magazine, 1989-1999.

 

Useful links:

 

Christo and Jeanne-Claude: The Gates official web site

 

“The Gates, Central Park, New York, 1979-2005”
Christo and Jeanne-Claude

New York Times complete coverage: 24 features: appraisals, reports, slide shows, multimedia, etc.

 

 



(click on pictures to enlarge)

Kristen Richards

Detail: The Gates

Kristen Richards

Central Park South

Kristen Richards

Gapstow Bridge at The Pond

Kristen Richards

A breezy path

Kristen Richards

This gatekeeper at the Metropolitan Museum of Art also manned one of the forklifts that placed the 15,000 steel footing weights

Kristen Richards

Gatekeeper with parrots (not his own)

Kristen Richards

Harmonica Man at The Gates

Kristen Richards

Shakespeare at The Gates

Kristen Richards

Balto at The Gates

Kristen Richards

The Arsenal

Kristen Richards

The Plaza Hotel

Kristen Richards

A quick hem fix

Kristen Richards

Truckloads of tubes left over from the unfurling

Kristen Richards

A tunnel at The Gates

Kristen Richards

Over-the-top view

Kristen Richards

The Gates climb steps

Kristen Richards

The Great Lawn

Kristen Richards

A pretty path

Kristen Richards

Catching the sun

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