The World’s Largest Sculpture Will Be A 500-Foot-Tall Pyramid Of 410,000 Oil Barrels

Christo, the legendary public artist, has been planning the sculpture called the Mastaba for decades. Is it now about to become reality outside Abu Dhabi?


Christo and Jeanne-Claude, a husband-wife team of artists, first came up with the idea for a giant sculpture made out of multi-colored oil barrels in the late 1970s, not long after the famous 1973 oil crisis hit the United States. Any doubts about whether the Middle East (and its oil reserves) held power over the U.S. were quelled. A structure in the region made out of 410,000 oil barrels only seemed appropriate.


That sculpture was never built; political crises and other events in the Middle East put Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s project on long-term hold. Jeanne-Claude passed away in 2009, but it seems that the 500-foot-tall structure, named the Mastaba, may finally come to fruition. Christo recently told the Guardian that a site for the project was approved (though Justin Doherty, Christo’s spokesperson, tells Co.Exist that “No high-level political decision has yet been made.”).

The Mastaba of Abu Dhabi (Project for United Arab Emirates) Scale model. Photo: Wolfgang Volz. © 1979 Christo

If completed, the $340 million project will be the largest permanent structure in the world–and the priciest. It will take 30 months and hundreds of people to build the sculpture, which will be placed 100 miles outside Abu Dhabi in Al Gharbia.

Christo resumed work on the Mastaba when he observed that Abu Dhabi was attempting to rebrand itself as a cultural hub, according to the Guardian. Now Christo is working with a number of organizations in the area, including the Western Region Development Council. The project will be financed by sales of Christo’s work as well as investors. “It’s an ongoing process,” Doherty tells us.

The artist told the Guardian that the work isn’t political–he has used oil in previous unrelated projects–but it’s hard to not see the significance, especially now that the U.S. is set to overtake Saudi Arabia as the world’s top oil producing country. Much as the pyramids outlasted ancient Egyptian civilization, Christo’s Mastaba will last well beyond the age of Middle Eastern oil. And like the pyramids, the Mastaba will be a major tourist attraction, with a restaurant, a hotel, and an “art campus” planned for nearby.

Christo during a scale model test at the proposed site of The Mastaba. Photo: Wolfgang Volz © 2011 Christo.

The artist has said, however, that the Mastaba is inspired by a kind of Mesopotamian mud bench, not by pyramids. “The Mastaba itself is a shape that’s familiar to people in the region,” explains Doherty.

Christo is perhaps best known for his work wrapping objects in large sheets. A 1995 project dubbed Wrapped Reichstag saw the German parliament wrapped in cloth; a project called Over the River that will drape a six-mile stretch of the Arkansas River in silvery fabric is set to go live in 2014. Most of his installations are temporary, but the Mastaba will be permanent.

About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more