• Environmental artists re-envision humans' relations with nature and highlight how damaged environments can be remedied.
  • The environmental artist Christo's posthumous work in Paris has drawn hundreds of thousands of visitors in recent weeks.
  • The work used 25,000 metres of fabric to wrap a building, at a time when we need to abandon all forms of high-waste packaging.
  • A new environmental art for the 21st century would use technology to create bold artworks that are truly sustainable.

Back in 2014, in the small alpine village of Alpbach, Austria, I found myself at a dinner with Christo, the environmental artist who died last year at the age of 84. His kind eyes glowed as he shared with us the project he was working on – the expansive floating pier on Italy’s Lake Iseo that engaged the natural environment. Recently, his posthumous work in Paris, an installation at the Arc de Triomphe, has drawn hundreds of thousands of visitors. The work presents us with the perfect opportunity to reconsider how art and environmentalism work together.

A new look at 'environmental art'

From an environmental point of view, it is hard to justify a project that used 25,000 square meters of fabric to wrap a building. The fashion industry is responsible for 10 percent of global carbon emissions, and the water-intensive process of fabric production is the second-largest consumer of water in the world – a world where 2.7 billion people are already water-insecure. Although the fabric used for Christo's project was recycled, this does not go far enough. As we seek to leave behind a society of casual overconsumption in the West, we must abandon all forms of high-waste packaging.

Rethinking urban installations

More importantly, there are intellectual reasons to rethink urban installations such as the wrapping of the Arc de Triomphe. The legacy of Christo and his wife Jeanne-Claude is longer-lasting than their temporary installation. They have taught us to see urban and natural landmarks with different eyes. Their process – which resembled the literary method of Verfremdung, or radical defamiliarization, that Bertolt Brecht famously popularized – helped us become reacquainted with our environments under new, woven silhouettes. In Christo’s words, “We have to borrow [urban] space and create gentle disturbances for a few days.” As citizens, we then become aware of how the supposedly “static” buildings and environments could be transformed in unpredictable ways.

Today, such processes are needed more than ever, as cities all over the world need creativity to reinvent themselves following the pandemic. We need more speculative design – imagining distant futures and radical transformations, however brief and experimental, that could help transform the time we live in. Fiona Raby and Anthony Dunne have taken such an approach at the Royal College of Arts in London over the past two decades. It is especially needed in the field of urban planning, where bureaucracy, politics, and inertia can stand in the way of efforts to change. Our designers, and our built environments more generally, need the bold, artistic spark that people like Christo and Jeanne Claude have given us in the past.

"New technologies can help us achieve such objectives in more sustainable ways."

—Carlo Ratti

Leveraging technology

There are now new technologies that can help us achieve such objectives in more sustainable ways. This is not about wrapping a building in a hundred different materials on Photoshop, or modelling it from every angle in virtual reality. We stand by Christo when he once said, “the real thing is the real thing. The work is not a photograph, a film or an image. It is the real thing.” However, to reinvent his style of unified, collective spectacle, imagine lighting up the Arc de Triomphe or other urban and natural landmarks with high-powered projections, such as the ones that Black Lives Matter activists used to transform a statue of the Confederate General Robert E. Lee. More complex 3D imaging can now be done with holograms or drones. As Christo noted, “it is very boring to do something when we already know how to do it.” New technologies can help us push the boundaries of temporary transformations in our living environment.

In an ever more connected world, we must become adept at seeing our surroundings from multiple perspectives, engaging citizens in transformative wrappings of their own. People should be involved in the design choices that can reveal our cities in new lights. Again, this is something that was not possible in the beginning of Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s careers, but it is now, thanks to contemporary network technologies.

Now the Arc de Triomphe has been unwrapped, we should all think about how to move from environmental art to true environmentalism.