Civil engineering student helps with logistics for environmental art project in Central Park

Feb. 7, 2005

AUSTIN, Texas—A University of Texas at Austin graduate student in civil engineering has provided technical information and logistical support to install thousands of 16-foot-tall structures in Central Park for the latest project of world-renowned artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude.

The Gates project involves 7,503 structures, or gates, that will be spaced in 12-foot intervals along 23 acres of footpaths in the park for just over two weeks, with the proposed unveiling date being Feb. 12. The gates consist of five-inch square poles that will form squared arches above footpaths in the 843-acre park. Suspended from the top of each saffron-colored, vinyl gate will be a panel of saffron fabric that will extend within seven feet above the paths, trailing over walkers’ heads.

Micah Florea sits beside Christo and Jeanne-Claude sculpture books
Florea helped plan The Gates project for three years, since graduating from Tulane University. Originally conceived in 1979, the $20 million-plus project funded by the artists is expected to be unveiled Feb. 12.
Photo: Caroling Lee

Micah Florea, who came to The University of Texas at Austin last fall to pursue a master’s degree in structural engineering, was responsible for creating complex AutoCAD drawings and the spreadsheets used to calculate millions of dollars in materials purchased for The Gates. He also helped solve logistical problems associated with having 600-plus workers erect the gates of varying widths over a series of days starting on Feb. 7, if weather permits.

“My part in the project has been a cross between engineering and drawing, and I have really enjoyed that,” said Florea, who studies the fatigue behavior of traffic-signal structures in the lab of Dr. Karl Frank at the university. Florea had just completed an undergraduate degree from Tulane University in civil engineering in 2002 when The Gates’ project manager, Vince Davenport, asked him to participate in the project, funded entirely by the artists. An architect had bowed out, and Florea stepped in, continuing the effort after coming to Austin.

Frank, director of the Ferguson Structural Engineering Laboratory, said Florea is representative of graduate students in structural engineering at The University of Texas at Austin, who are among the top 10 percent nationally. Frank added that Florea’s participation in The Gates has further demonstrated his breadth of interest and enthusiasm for undertaking challenging projects.

“He is clearly among the brightest of students,” Frank said, “and he received the Thompson Fellowship in recognition of his undergraduate record. We are glad that we are able to recruit students of Micah’s caliber to our program.”

For The Gates, Florea created maps of the park from aerial photos and other material. He added details such as the location of each gate, where to store millions of pounds of steel that provide the bases for the gates before installation, and how the park could be conceptually divided into 73 sections to guide workers” efforts.

These and other map details have been updated dozens of times, with about 400 changes coming from Davenport in recent months to take into account places in Central Park where maintenance workers have removed or pruned trees over pathways since an initial review in 2002.

All told, Florea said, “I’ve printed more than 2,000 linear feet of maps, 2- to 3-feet wide.”

He noted that the maps have served practical and artistic purposes, as they have been produced for everyone from Christo to New York Police Department and city council members. Framed versions of five maps were even on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the park last April through July as part of Christo’s exhibition on the upcoming artwork.

The maps not only note gate locations, but customized gate placements through a color code Florea developed to take into account changing path widths that require gates that vary from 6-feet to 18-feet wide.

The drawings also were used to clarify the final number of gates, and how much saffron-colored fabric (more than 100,000 square feet) and vinyl (65 miles) to prepare for the gates’ construction. Then there were the steel bases for the gates, which weighed up to 837 pounds each.

“In the whole project, there’s about ten-and-a-half-million pounds of steel, which is more than in the Space Needle,” Florea noted.

Most of the time, Florea added drawing changes and performed quality-control calculations on his own, which he said has helped build his self-confidence.

“A lot of things have been riding on my shoulders, and nobody had the time to double-check what I was doing,” he said.

After earning Davenport’s trust with the maps, Florea created computer simulations to verify that the gates and their fabric could withstand windy conditions, comparing his results to wind-tunnel tests on a few gates. Using concepts he learned in a metals course at the College of Engineering, he also helped design a steel attachment for use on forklifts to safely transport gates within the park.

An opportunity to continue learning hands-on applications as he has done with The Gates project drew Florea to the university last fall.

“I wanted to be challenged academically,” he said, “and I wanted to participate in a program that took a practical approach to engineering.”

He said he intends to apply some of what he learned while working on The Gates to his coursework and his future career as a civil engineer.

“With this type of project, there are constant changes, and the turn-around time can be extremely short,” he said. “You have to recognize what is important and essential, and what can be left as ‘good enough.’”

As an engineer considering ways to meet shelter and other needs in poor countries, he said he also has gained a greater sense of aesthetics to combine with the essential information he’s learning about structural integrity at the university.

“The Gates will get people out in the park that maybe never have visited the park before,” he said. “They’ll talk to strangers whom they never would have talked to about the art, and form a new community in a way.”

For more information contact: Becky Rische, College of Engineering, 512-471-7272.