Abu Dhabi's answer to the pyramids

A monument to the petrol civilisation, The Mastaba, by the artist Christo, would stand 150 metres high in the desert and be made out of oil barrels.

ABU DHABI // Taller than the Great Pyramid of Giza and built from thousands of multicoloured petrol barrels, the towering structure in Abu Dhabi's open desert would be visible from kilometres away.

That is the vision for The Mastaba, a 150-metre high sculpture that has languished on the drawing board for 33 years. Now, with the capital looking to forge its identity through art, there is renewed hope for the project, which would cost an estimated US$350 million to $500 million to construct. That is the wish of the artist Christo, who conceived the idea in 1977 with his late wife Jeanne-Claude, with whom he had spent decades creating pieces of environmentally-inspired public art.

With Jeanne-Claude's death last November after a brain aneurysm, Christo's wish to realise the ambitious sculpture has intensified. Yet The Mastaba project is still just inching forward. The eccentric New York-based artists behind the project spent millions of dollars in pursuit of their dream, commissioning secretive feasibility reports from competing teams in four continents. There have been scouting expeditions throughout the emirate for potential sites, and consultations with dozens of engineering and structural specialists. Hopes have risen and fallen.

But Christo is used to waiting. His 2005 work with Jeanne-Claude The Gates, which festooned New York's Central Park with 7,504 saffron banners, took 26 years of bureaucratic wrangling to achieve. The Mastaba, envisioned in empty landscape near the Abu Dhabi-Al Ain highway, has been the longest wait. "The project should be part of the destination. Not around the city," Christo explained, speaking from his New York studio. "It's extremely powerful."

The wiry Bulgarian-born artist, 75, described the project as a joint undertaking, despite Jeanne-Claude's death last year at the age of 74. A more poetic monument to the petrol civilization would be tough to imagine - let alone assemble: Christo envisions a kaleidoscopic mountain of 410,000 painted petrol drums. "What we're proposing," he said, "is a unique work. Not a pyramid. A pyramid is a much smaller form, where all the walls are slanted. A mastaba is an older Arabic geometric form. You will see that vertical wall with those multi-coloured barrels making a mosaic of bright colours - orange, yellow, blue."

The project might have progressed further were it not for the first Gulf War, which complicated travel to the capital. Over the course of eight trips to the UAE since the 1970s, Christo and Jeanne-Claude dined with civil engineers, surveyed maps with the former minister of education, reviewed technical studies and befriended officials at the Ministry of Information and Culture. Old photographs show Christo laying sketches on the floor of Abu Dhabi's town planning office.

Zaki Nusseibeh, the vice chairman of the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage, met the couple while serving as the interpreter for Sheikh Zayed, the founding President of the UAE. "The Mastaba was a very exciting idea," he recalled, "but it was very early days for a huge contemporary installation here. Of course the times have changed. There's a major investment in culture now." Abu Dhabi was still building basic infrastructure back then, but Dr Nusseibeh said that with the construction of the forthcoming international museums on Saadiyat Island the emirate was in a much better position to accommodate works of art.

"I'm personally very impressed by their work and commitment to this project," he said. "As for whether it could fit into the future of that arts scene, we don't know yet. Abu Dhabi is a land where everything is possible." Building it is certainly possible, insisted Christo, who hired elite structural specialists from Cambridge, Tokyo, Zurich and Illinois to compete over the project. The UK firm behind the Louvre Abu Dhabi, Buro Happold, submitted their bid in 2008.

Ian Liddell, the company's co-founder, said their plan involved fastening groups of steel barrels to subframes, then hauling them up the slope into position. "The roof structure can be built at a low level and hoisted up the concrete towers with strand jacks," Mr Liddell said. While Christo has financed previous works of art by selling his preparatory drawings, this one would require sponsorship.

Dr Nusseibeh suggested partnering with a foundation such as the Guggenheim. Shifting the project to Saadiyat Island would not fulfil Christo's aesthetic dream, but as long as the work could rise from open desert as intended, he said, "all possible approaches to realise The Mastaba should of course be considered." One way or another, the passing of Jeanne-Claude underscored the fact that this could be his final masterpiece.

"The man is getting old," said Gerard Couturier, the branch director of Oger International. In 2007 the Saudi engineering firm studied ways to build the sculpture which, unlike Christo's transient projects, would not be disassembled after mere weeks. The Mastaba could last centuries. "There would be only one Mastaba in the world, but those plans are sitting in a drawer somewhere. It's time to build it," Mr Couturier urged. "This could be the last statement of an artist."

Berj Aprahamian, the Armenian contractor who accompanied Christo and Jeanne-Claude to Abu Dhabi Municipality in 1980, said he hoped to see The Mastaba created within his lifetime. "I fell in love with their work," said Mr Aprahamian, who consulted on the project without pay. Now 79 and managing another local company, he dined with the artists in 2007, during their last trip scouting for possible building sites.

"They were committed to finishing it," he said. "One should never lose hope." As for Christo, losing half his creative team may have strengthened his resolve to overcome bureaucratic challenges and finish the work. "Jeanne-Claude and myself always thought this project is about harmony," he said. "It would be enriching to see this sculpture - something very visually beautiful. The only thing this project is about is beauty. We just need somebody to show enthusiasm."

To the artist Christo, relocating The Mastaba from Abu Dhabi would be like uprooting a child after 33 years. "You don't just choose Abu Dhabi by pointing at a map," Christo said. "We settled on this young country, very tolerant, which produced oil and was very excited to move ahead in the Western world." After eight tours to the emirate with his late wife, Jeanne-Claude, the pair became enamoured with the emirate. Over the last 45 years, Christo and his wife completed 22 large-scale works and failed to get permission for a further 37. Among their notable successes are: ? Running Fence, (conceived in 1972, completed in 1976). Nearly 40kms of 5.5-metre-high white nylon curtain stretching across northern California; ? Surrounded Islands (1980-83). The wrapping of 11 islands in Florida with pink polypropylene fabric; ? The Umbrellas (1984-91). Anchoring 3,100 blue and yellow umbrellas across two valleys near Tokyo and California; ? Wrapped Reichstag (1971-95). More than 100,000sqm of silver propylene fabric draped over Germany's parliament; ? Over the River (1992-in progress). Proposed suspension of recycled, translucent fabric running 9.4kms above Colorado's portion of the Arkansas River. @Email:mkwong@thenational.ae