It takes serious engineering to let 640,000 people walk on water. Luckily, that’s exactly the kind of technical and creative challenge that Christo—the artist who wrapped the Reichstag and dotted Central Park with 7,503 orange panels of fabric—excels at.

For decades, Christo worked with his wife, Jeanne-Claude. She died in 2009, and on Saturday, his first solo installation opened—after 46 years of planning and 22 months of building. The new project, the “Floating Piers” comprises two miles of marigold-yellow walkways gently bobbing on top of Lake Iseo, a small lake in northern Italy, connecting the waterside town of Sulzano with two small islands.

The spectacle part is easy—the floating paths almost compel visitors to try them out, and Sulzano expects about 40,000 people a day. But making them work was tricky. Marinas often use temporary, floating piers; a common technique involves propping them atop styrofoam cubes. “We discovered very soon that this cube system was perfect for us,” says Wolfgang Volz, Christo’s project manager. So in the fall of 2014, Christo’s team ran a secret simulation of the Floating Piers in Germany. But the styrofoam blocks were too small and too dense.

So they built their own blocks—220,000 in total. They’re about 20 percent bigger than the ones marinas use, and more buoyant. A Bulgarian company supplied the materials, and Christo hired four different manufacturing companies to ensure they’d have enough.

DSC03029.jpgWolfgang Volz

Once Christo had his blocks, he, Volz, and a few dozen workers started connecting the cubes into 50- by 330-foot sections. They attached the cubes with giant screws, right on the water, in a corralled section of Lake Iseo. One by one, workers pushed the white styrofoam rafts out into the lake and anchored them to 5.5-ton concrete slabs arranged on the lake floor in a configuration conceived by Christo. “Very tedious work,” Volz says. “Every day the same.” It took four months, with workers doing shifts of two weeks on, two weeks off the job. “The same as an oil rig schedule,” Volz says.

The next step was to cover those walkways, first in felt and then in 1 million square feet of nylon fabric. It’s not waterproof—people would have slipped in puddles, a non-starter for a walk-on-water art installation with no guardrails. That porousness also lends the pathways some color-changing charm: “When it’s wet it’s almost red,” Volz says. “And when it’s dry it’s totally yellow, almost lemonade yellow.”

In less than two weeks, the Floating Piers will come down. He’ll sell the blocks to an Italian recycling company for about half the original price. They probably would have kept floating for at least a year, but the fabric would have disintegrated. That’s a short lifespan for an installation that took nearly two years and, in the end, 700 workers to complete. But projects like Christo’s are never made to last, and you can only walk on water for so long.

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How Christo Built His Latest Work: Two Miles of Floating Walkway