I thought I would agree with my friend (and ex-parks commissioner) Henry Stern about Christo’s “Gates” project in Central Park: now that it has been revised so as not to harm the park—and now that it is privately financed, so the taxpayers don’t have to foot the bill—it is a perfectly cheerful jeu d’esprit, Henry believes. Sure, it is gilding park designers Olmsted and Vaux’s perfect lily, but what’s the harm?
Plenty, it turns out. The art project—7,500 steel gates, 16 feet high, hung with orange nylon curtains, along 23 miles of the park’s paths—is like an alien invasion, taking over the park from top to bottom. The opposite of cheerful, the gates are oppressive, claustrophobic, even on a brilliant winter Sunday. They crowd as inescapably together as riot police, and are just as lumpish in their inelegant proportions and angular profiles. Like the riot police’s plastic shield and shiny helmets, their materials proclaim Industrial Man’s brute mastery over the elements, producing by unimaginably powerful forces, in white-hot furnaces and giant petrochemical vats that only legions of technicians could design and run, the steel and nylon that shoulders aside the trees and sky.
Central Park, by contrast, is a triumph of man’s ability to cultivate nature, not conquer it. It is dedicated to allowing the citizen, even in the heart of the crowded city, to feel free and large against the trees and sky, to wander at will from prospect to prospect —even, as the name of one area of the park proclaims, to ramble. But as crowds thronged the park to experience “The Gates,” they looked, as they trudged along the strictly delineated paths and disappeared over the crest of a hill, as if they were being herded off to the Last Judgment. They were not enlarged, as is the usual effect of Central Park, but diminished.
For all the cant about the artist as a liberator of the human spirit, there is much in contemporary art and especially architecture that seeks to impose upon individuals the artist’s vast ego and confine them within it, so that they cannot escape his will. It is this whiff of totalitarianism that makes Polish intellectuals label such architecture “neo-oppressionism.”
Fortunately, in two weeks, when the sensation of “The Gates” has worn off, Christo’s work will disappear. If only the same could be said of other neo-oppressionist schemes, like those of Daniel Libeskind, for example.