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He is an artist best known for wrapping the Reichstag in Berlin and for siting thousands of coloured umbrellas across valleys in Japan and America. Now Christo is creating for Abu Dhabi a colossal structure that he claims will be the world’s biggest permanent sculpture. Estimated construction costs of $340m (£212m) would also make it the world’s most expensive.
A 150-metre-high, flat-topped pyramid would be taller than St Paul’s Cathedral or St Peter’s Basilica and would overshadow the Great Pyramid of Giza – creating Abu Dhabi’s answer to Egypt’s pyramids or Mecca’s Kaaba.
The Mastaba, made out of 410,000 multicoloured oil barrels, is planned for what Christo describes as a “spectacularly beautiful” desert landscape, Al Gharbia, 100 miles from Abu Dhabi city.
Speaking to the Observer, Christo said a site near Liwa oasis has been approved. The region boasts some of the world’s highest dunes, with gazelles among the wildlife. Stacked barrels painted in colours inspired by the yellow and red sands will recreate the visual effect of an Islamic mosaic, he said: “When the sun rises, the vertical wall will become almost full of gold.”
It is a project that he first envisaged in a series of drawings more than 30 years ago with his wife, Jeanne-Claude, who died in 2009. But the Iran-Iraq war was among factors delaying plans. Christo revived them after being inspired by Abu Dhabi’s bid to turn itself into a cultural oasis in the Middle East – notably, the Louvre Museum in Paris opening an outpost, and British architect Norman Foster designing the Zayed National Museum.
He is collaborating on the project with Sheikh Hamdan bin Zayed al-Nahyan, representative of the crown prince, his elder brother. He first had to convince the royal family – “and now they’re very excited to realise the project,” he said.
He claims that it is financed “independently”, through sales of his works for up to $10m and “different investors”. He refused to elaborate. Asked whether the country’s ruling family are among the investors, he said: “We cannot say more. They own the land.”
Christo, born Christo Javacheff, is a Bulgarian-born American who started as a social realist painter before devoting himself to wrapping everyday objects from bottles to chairs in sheets or tarpaulin. One story claims porters at an auction house failed to appreciate that the paper wrapping they removed from a chair was in fact a Christo sculpture.
Christo and Jeanne-Claude eventually moved on to temporary larger-than-life wrappings, suspending a curtain across a Colorado valley and covering the Pont Neuf in Paris.
The Mastaba will be their only permanent large-scale work. Christo emphasised that it is not a pyramid. The name and geometrical form are inspired by an ancient Mesopotamian mud bench for desert travellers to rest.
He denied that using oil barrels as artistic material was a commentary on the region’s oil, pointing out that they feature in previous works, including his 1960s Iron Curtain, in which he blocked off a Paris street with oil drums.
In a book titled The Mastaba, Project for Abu Dhabi, which Christo published this month, he makes clear that none of his ideas are born of economic or political events. He recalls the words of Jeanne-Claude: “We only do works of joy and beauty.”
He told the Observer that he wants to create a sculpture that is “deeply rooted” in the great tradition of Islamic architecture: “When Louis XIV was building that kitschy castle Versailles, the greatest architecture in the Middle East had incredible simplicity … and play with colours.”
He said that the Mastaba’s construction will take 30 months and involve hundreds of people. A German company that produces the colours for Mercedes-Benz and BMW cars will create colours for the barrels. Nearby, an “art campus” with an exhibition about the project, as well as a luxury hotel and restaurant, will also be built. He commissioned a report that suggests that up to 2 million visitors a year will come. Whether that level can be achieved remains to be seen.