Saturday, 3 November 2012

Preview: The Eiffel Tower

"Are we then going to allow [the soul and beauty of Paris] to be profaned? Is the city of Paris to permit itself to be deformed by monstrosities, by the mercantile dreams of a maker of machinery; to be disfigured forever and to be dishonoured? For the Eiffel Tower, which even the United States would not countenance, is surely going to dishonour Paris."

These are the words of a large group of influential French artists, writers, and composers on the eve of construction of the Eiffel Tower. If, by freak of fate, I was to awaken a Parisian in early 1887, I suspect I'd be inclined to agree. On the face of it, the Eiffel Tower is a preposterous idea. In a city of historic buildings and coherent architecture, the construction of a giant metal tower smack bang in the middle sounds ridiculous. That the man with his name behind the enterprise, Gustave Eiffel, was a noted engineer of iron bridges rather than an actual architect would only further have reduced my confidence.

Solace could have been taken, at least, in the fact that the Eiffel Tower was only ever supposed to be temporary. In 1889, Paris was holding the World's Fair, a terrific opportunity to show off to the world how far it had come after a tumultuous century of Revolution, Napoleon, disastrous wars, and loss of territory to Germany. An extravaganza was planned, and at the centre of this extravaganza the government wanted a colossal 1000-foot metal tower, a symbol of France's prosperity and knowhow. So they had a competition, attracting something in the region of 700 submissions. These included a tower in the form of a gigantic garden sprinkler - to water Paris in case of drought - and another in the form of a huge guillotine. But it was Eiffel's design that was the clear winner.

In actual fact, it would appear that Eiffel's tower design was well known before the competition, and the competition was set up very much for him to win. Gustave Eiffel was a safe choice, with his company having a proven track record of construction, mostly of bridges but also of other monumental projects. Notably, he'd been responsible for the internal framework of the Statue of Liberty. Efficient, experienced and organised, Eiffel was very much a modern man of the Industrial Revolution, utilising the new techniques and materials available for a productivity and scale never before seen. He was the ideal choice to beat the drum for French industry and innovation.

Gustave Eiffel's early role in the design of his iconic tower went no further than giving the OK to some sketches. With the Paris Expo a couple of years away and murmurs of a desire for a 1000-foot showpiece, Eiffel's colleagues Emile Nouguier and Maurice Koechlim drew up initial plans for what this tower might look like, and the architect Stephen Sauvestre took these sketches and further refined them. Eiffel liked them and realised he wanted to build it, so he bought the patent rights from his colleagues. Although he always acknowledged his colleagues' early role, Gustave Eiffel took full ownership of the tower. Only he had the knowledge and experience to make this unprecedented project a reality, and he was determined to make it go ahead. So much so that he floated his company to generate the 5 million francs needed to generate the cash to build it (the government would only contribute 1.5 million francs). Additionally, after a five month delay due to legal wranglings between the government and local residents, who were terrified the tower would collapse and crush them, Eiffel promised to cover all costs to residents if his tower fell down. It was a huge gamble, and failure of this never-before attempted project would have led to his absolute ruin. And all for a temporary structure.

Eiffel's design, an iron lattice tower, would weigh around 8000 tons of metal (the entire thing weighs in at around 11000 tons, including 55 tons of paint). This is remarkably lightweight - compare it to the structure it usurped for "tallest in the world", the Washington Monument, built from stone and weighing 80,000 tons. The advantage to Eiffel's tower was that it could be very easily dismantled and rebuilt elsewhere, something that would not have been possible with traditional stone structures. This was handy, as his tower was not supposed to be a permanent attraction. The plan was for it to wow the visitors at the Expo and then hang around for another 20 years, at which time ownership would be handed from Gustave Eiffel to the city of Paris. After that, well, who could say? The novelty of a big metal tower would surely have worn thin by then - time for it to go.

Of course, as we know, things worked out a little differently. Built in just over two years, more-or-less on schedule, the Eiffel Tower was an immediate hit. Gustave's gamble paid off. In the 176 days of the Paris Expo, it attracted two million visitors and almost entirely paid for its construction costs. It has been in constant profit ever since. These days around six million visit each year. So, what's the appeal?

Perhaps we can let Gustave Eiffel reply to this, in his response to his critics during the early construction. "There is an attraction and charm inherent in the colossal that is not subject to ordinary theories of art. Does anyone pretend that the Pyramids have so forcefully gripped the imagination of men through their artistic value?" But even here, I feel, Eiffel undersells his tower. Huge it may be, but the appeal goes further, as a mix of the artistic and the industrial. Unquestionably a work of engineering, with the bare-bones of metal girders on full display, it is also a work of art, a thing of beauty, of graceful curves. Rather than disfiguring and defacing Paris, as the critics hollered, it instead defines it. Many of the previous objectors publicly changed their minds upon its completion. Sometimes, the best architecture doesn't need to fit into its surroundings; it's a big gamble, but sometimes the best architecture can stick out. 324 metres high, there is no question the Eiffel Tower sticks out. Yet somehow, despite being totally incongruent, it fits in, it makes sense. It's impossible to imagine Paris without it.

Fame itself has become one of the chief attractions of the Eiffel Tower. Surely, there can be no greater icon of a city and country. The Eiffel Tower is probably the most famous man-made construction on earth. Only the pyramids of Giza, maybe the Great Wall of China, and perhaps the Statue of Liberty can, in my opinion, offer any competition. Its image is everywhere. While visiting a Buddhist temple at the Spring Temple Buddha earlier this year, in the middle of absolutely nowhere in China, I was astonished to see a small model of the tower alongside the Buddha statues.

Click photo to enlarge. You will also observe a Golden Gate Bridge there also.
Aside from the vast amount of souvenir memorabilia - snow globes, pencil sharpeners, cushions, USB sticks, etc - it has duplicates around the world. Blackpool Tower was built as a half-size version and was originally due to be called the the Blackpool Eiffel Tower. Vegas, perhaps inevitably, has a half-size replica, and Wikipedia has a page dedicated to the many other copies. Do they detract from the original? Not at all; rather, I think they raise its profile even further. The Eiffel Tower was never a sacred construction, from the very start it was a commercial enterprise. It could be described as the first Wonder of the modern era, the first to be driven by money. And lest you think this is a bad thing, a sign of the rule of commercialism, just remember that the 199 names engraved on the world's most famous construction are not the names of kings, tyrants, or gods, as per most ancient Wonders. They are the names of the 199 permanent workmen on the project. The Eiffel Tower is also a symbol of democracy.

I've been lucky enough to have already visited the Eiffel Tower, albeit only briefly, and so already have a first impression. That impression was: big, muscular, elegant. The visit was very brief and I didn't have time to go up, but I was very impressed. As the Eiffel Tower is one of mankind's most iconic structures it comes with a lot of hype, and is unquestionably one of the heavyweight contenders in this Wonder quest. Could it be in the top Seven?

I'll find out around Christmas this year, as that's when Danielle and I go to Paris for a short holiday, and I'll give a full account of its history and my opinions then.


  1. That's a great fact about the 199 workmen's names. A nice touch. I didn't know that.

  2. This is definitely one of the best articles I have read in this website! Thanks Mate.