Walk on Water: Waiting for Christo’s “Floating Piers”

/ by James Charney

It didn’t look good. We had been looking forward to experiencing Christo’s installation on Lake Iseo in Lombardy, Italy since we’d first heard about it. My wife and I were fans long before we walked “The Gates” in New York’s Central Park. We had heard him and his wife, Jeanne-Claude, give talks about their work; my wife had been so impressed that she wrote Christo a poem of appreciation. He replied the next day, by delivering to us signed posters of his “Surrounded Islands” in Biscayne Bay, Florida and his wrapping of the “Pont Neuf” in Paris. After New York, we were really hooked. He seemed to have captured a way to bring people together with joy, by bringing “unnecessary art” to unexpected places.


Christo and Jeanne-Claude conceived a version of this “Floating Piers” project back in 1970. At first it was meant to be in Argentina. Part of their process has always been that the work required them to get permissions for these monumental pieces. Christo pays for these works himself, by selling his drawings. This gives him creative freedom. But he does need permission, and bureaucracies can be relentless. The New York “Gates” project took over 20 years to be approved. Their efforts for approval for “Floating Piers” were getting nowhere in South America. Then Jeanne-Claude died, and it was hard for Christo to continue.


A few years ago, he began looking for another location, and found Lake Iseo. Amazingly (especially for Italy), he managed to get all the permissions in just 18 months! His “Floating Piers” would be a 3 kilometer runway (a passerella in Italian) connecting the mainland with Monte Isola and San Paolo islands in Lake Iseo, the smallest of the northern Italian lakes. Some 200,000 floating plastic cubes, covered in 100,000 square meters of orange-yellow fabric (very much like the color of “The Gates” in New York) would create a floating walkway that was 16 meters wide. And, it would only be there for 16 days.


As with all his works, it required a team of experts: engineers to design the floating platform, underwater specialists for the anchors, a factory to sew the 100,000 square meters of fabric and the 70,000 square meters of felt that would soften the walkway. And, because this project invited the public to “walk on water,” there needed to be monitors, extra security, and safety teams. What they couldn’t have imagined was how many people decided to come.


They expected about 250,000 people over the two weeks of the installation. As of closing day, yesterday, 1.2 million people had walked the piers.


We had booked two days in an apartment near the entrance to the piers. Who knew that this was also the first weekend of the Italian vacation period? Or that the installation would be so popular?


An announcement on the “Floating Piers” Facebook page the day before sounded a warning:


Given the anticipated numbers this weekend, visitors should be prepared for wait times and the possibility of not making it onto the piers, due to capacity.


As we drove from Verona toward the lake, we saw another worrisome sign: Floating Piers—tutti parcheggi chiusi. No more parking available. Then when we got off the Autostrada onto the local road to Sulzano, the entrance to the piers, we saw police blocking the very right turn we needed to take to our apartment. Fortunately, Paola, our Italian friend, bravely took them on, and in rapid Italian explained our situation. We had our booking confirmation on my iPad and that, and her Italian shmoozing, did the trick. They let us through.


When we got to the apartment, we were met by our host, Roberto. He was very welcoming, but immediately started using words like un delirio e un disastro (I don’t think that needs translation). They just weren’t set up for these kind of crowds. The wait to get onto the piers was now 3 to 4 hours, standing shoulder to shoulder, serpentine, in the very hot sun. With no certainty of getting in (the weather report was iffy and they closed the piers when wind or rain threatened). Roberto suggested we come with him to the local marina, where he was sure a ragazzo would take us to the piers by boat, so we could avoid the crowd. The only problem was that, when we got there, the ragazzo had taken his boat out onto the water with his girlfriend—and no one knew when he would be back. We decided to wait. We figured it was better to wait in comfort, sitting in the shade at the trattoria at the marina, sipping aqua frizzante (at first, then we graduated to Francia Corta, the delightful sparkling wine of the region—very much like champagne), than waiting the same long time in the hot sun. So we waited. And waited. And waited. SMSs to the ragazzo went unanswered. We didn’t know for sure if he would come at all. Finally, after 4 hours (we did have a very good lunch—perhaps you must “suffer for art,” but you surely don’t need to go hungry) we decided the abandon hope and head for the entrance line—which was now “only” 2 to 3 hours long. Just then the ragazzo and his boat appeared over the horizon. Accompanied not just by his fidanzata, but also by her mother and sisters. Not quite as romantic as we had thought. He immediately agreed to take us, and after a lovely 10 minute ride across the lake, he dropped us off on Monte Isole, in the middle of the piers’ pathway.


This section was not impressive. The fabric was by now badly soiled. We were walking on land along the shore, there were food booths and porta-potties: a second-rate carnival. But just a few hundred meters on, we stepped onto the piers—floating on the lake towards the tiny island of San Paolo.


And everything changed. Christo had described walking on the piers as being like walking on a waterbed. And that fits, but because the surface was wide, it never felt precarious. Every once in a while, there would be a swell, and the pathway would ripple—it felt alive. The color had faded by now, but there were occasional wet spots which brought the intense orange color back. Though it was crowded, there would often be moments when you had large expanses of the path to yourself—the way traffic mysteriously clears after a jam.


Everyone was smiling. There were people in wheelchairs, children in strollers or walking along with their parents. Little moments felt like occasions. A swan swam along the path and climbed onto the pier, and everyone stopped to watch. A couple started dancing the tango to music from their iPhone—and soon several couples were dancing. Was it a “performance” or an improvised moment of joy? It hardly mattered. A bride (all in white) and groom marched by, and we all applauded. I saw someone who looked awfully like Anthony Bourdain. Was it? I don’t know. But it occurred to me that this was a remarkably democratizing experience. VIP or local butcher, to do the piers you had to walk them. Maybe the VIP didn’t have to stand on line for hours but, once admitted, we were all walking on the same water.


One surprise was that the walkway around the small island of San Paolo was all on water, too. From the photos I’d seen, I had assumed that it was on the shoreline of the island. But this island is so small (there is only one building) that there is no shoreline. So the floating sensation continued, as we circled the house and its garden. There was welcoming shade there too: a place to dangle your feet in the water for relief.


It was here that I removed my sandals and had another epiphany. The canvas fabric, resting in soft folds, felt like a sandy beach. I walked the rest of the way in my bare feet. Holding open my umbrella from Zabar’s in New York City to protect from the sun, and feeling very much at one with the world. My version of a Fellini moment.


There really was a sense of wonder, of magic, here. The crowds didn’t matter. In fact, they added something—the pleasure of watching other people feeling good, doing something they never imagined they would do. But thanks to Christo, they—we—have those memories now. And even though he and his team will make it go away tomorrow, they have given those of us who braved the heat and the weather and the distance a gift to cherish.

James Charney

, MD is a child and adolescent psychiatrist, now retired from a private practice of 35 years in New Haven, Connecticut.  He is on the faculty of the Yale Medical School, and for many years taught an undergraduate seminar at Yale College, called Madness at the Movies. He currently teaches a version of that course at American University of Rome. He and his wife divide their time between New Haven and Umbria.