Christo’s Running Fence: Grand Vision and Detailed Execution

The Running Fence will bring out the contours of the Sonoma hills and the seashore, the changing of the weather. The Running Fence is a celebration of the landscape.  – Christo

Working within any passion or pursuit, it is so much easier to generate ideas than to actually bring them into fruition. We can picture the finished creations — the perfectly matched colors, the flawless technique!  We can hear the oohs and ahs of appreciative viewers. But then reality sets in — finding the right materials, finding the time, and then, when a mistake creeps in, or we see a new trend, just finding the persistence to stick with the current project is difficult!  It’s so much easier to stash it in the closet and move on to a shinier vision.

And that is just for individual projects.  Working with a group — a committee or study group– adds hurdles to finishing a project.  So as I read about collaborative artists in Christo and Jeanne-Claude in the Vogel Collection, I was fascinated by the huge number of aspects considered to complete any one of their projects.

For example, here is the 1975 environmental impact study for Running Fence.   I enjoyed its “behind-the-scenes” glimpse into the many details required to turn Christo’s idea of “celebrating the landscape” into a physical installation.

Running Fence was the first art project to get an environmental impact study.  Since there were no zoning ordinances regarding 18-foot-high, 24.5-mile-long temporary objects, Christo pursued the construction permits as if for a regular building.  I liked how the consulting company, Environmental Science Associates, referred to the project’s “art” designation.

Its size, transitory nature, and essentially non-utilitarian purpose make Christo’s Running Fence one of the most unusual and challenging projects ever to be considered in terms of potential impacts on the environment.  Clearly, the subjective interpretation and analysis of the Running Fence is beyond the purview of the preparers of an environmental impact report.  ESA  has carefully avoided judging Running Fence as an art object.  (p. 50)

The consultants studied what impacts there might be on archaeology features, wildlife, ground, or community, from the Running Fence itself, and determined that there would probably not be any long-term impacts.  They focused most of their attention on the impacts of the traffic and viewers of the Fence during its two-week appearance.

Here are a few of the aspects that were considered and what was done to plan for them:


  1.  Fire.  The fabric chosen was fire-resistant nylon.
  2.  Wind damage. A team of engineers ran wind tests on the proposed fabric, poles and cables to make sure the construction could withstand 60 mph winds.  Stress tests revealed that the initial design failed, so they added supports to the bottoms of the poles.
  3.  Trespassing viewers.  Almost all of Running Fence was on private property.  Although the landowners had agreed to allow access for the construction and display of the piece, there was concern that viewers would leave their cars and go onto private property to get closer.
  4.  Traffic problems.  (They planned for as many as 10,000 cars a day; I have not been able to find out how many actually came out.)  ” As many as 270,000 visitors might be expected … during the two-week display period; on the peak day, 30,000 people (10,000 autos) might be expected. Overloading of the access and viewing road network, including sections of U.S. Highway 101, could occur, particularly on the second (peak) Sunday of the display period. Such overloading could lead to stop-and-go flow, traffic backups onto the freeway, cars running out of gasoline, boiling radiators, traffic accidents, and entrapment of emergency vehicles.” (p. 17 of 414, I am using the page numbers from the PDF, which don’t always agree with the ones in the printed report.)


  1. Fuel.  “A worst-case analysis, assuming maximum reasonably possible visitor volume for the full two-week display period, with all visitor autos traversing the full length of the Fence route in both directions, indicated total fuel consumption of about 1.4 million gallons of gasoline and about 350,000 gallons of jet fuel (the latter based on the assumption that one percent of the visitors would travel to the area by air, with an average one-way trip of 1500 miles). No allowance was made for dual-purpose trips, or for the possibility that local drivers would be using their autos for other recreational purposes if they were not traveling to the Fence.” (p. 17)
  2. Water.  “On a peak day, visitors would use less than 100,000 gallons of the area’s water; this cannot be considered a significant impact, in view of the temporary nature of the project.” (p. 65)
  3. Wastewater.  “An estimated crowd of 15,000 to 30,000 on  a peak day would generate between 45,000 to 90,000 gallons of liquid waste.  It is not anticipated that any adverse impact would affect the involved community service agencies.”  (p. 65)
  4. Solid Waste.  The environmental consultants suggested placing waste containers at viewers’ stopping places.  Christo had agreed to remove all litter, and had to post a $150,000 bond to insure compliance.

In addition to planning for resource use during the viewing period, there were plans for the dispersal of the materials.  “One of the trucks with balloon tires used to erect the Fence would be given to Sonoma County, as well as one of the machines used to punch holes in the soil for placement of the fence poles.  Each owner of the land which the Fence crosses would be given the poles used to hold the Fence.  There are over 2,000 poles; at a cost of $42 each, they represent a gift of $84,000.  The Fence panels and steel cables and anchors would also be given to the landowners.  The Running Fence Corporation will bestow a bio-kinetics machine — a machine which converts animal wastes into animal feed — upon the County of Marin.”  (pp. 71, 72)

(To put those numbers into perspective, at the time, according to the report, land in the Sonoma area was going for $600 – 700 an acre.)

As I said in my last post, it was interesting to me that the resource footprint of the materials was not considered at all, just the impact of travel to view the piece.  I think nowadays, most of us do an informal environmental cost assessment of our projects, as we consider the materials we use, the cost of traveling to get them, etc.  But I know if I had to consider all these other variables as well, I would be too overwhelmed to take on a project!

Was it all worth it?  Here is an interesting look back at its artistic and social impact– Considering Running Fence 40 years later in Sonoma magazine.