Saturday, 29 December 2012

26. Wonder: The Eiffel Tower

(For the Eiffel Tower preview, please click here.)

What's the most famous man-made structure in the world? If you said anything other than the Eiffel Tower, I'll fight you outside. 324 metres of wrought iron standing in a park in Paris, of all the candidate Wonders on my list, this has to be the best known. A symbol of Paris, a symbol of France, a symbol of the Industrial Revolution and the modern age, it is immediately familiar whether on TV, on a postcard, or seeing it in person. The image is imprinted upon the world's consciousness. It's unmistakeable, unforgettable. Why? Why is a big tower made out of metal so famous?

When it was built, just in time for the Paris Expo of 1889 (access to the public was slightly delayed, but the tower was structurally complete), the answer was simple: it was big. Really, really big. The average Parisian and visitor back then might have appreciated its other qualities - the technical achievement, its unique look - but it was the height that blew them away. It was by far the tallest building ever built. Compare it to its rivals, from an 1896 atlas.

It just disappears out of the picture. The Washington Monument (169 metres) just nudges out City Hall in Philadelphia (163 metres) and Cologne Cathedral (156 metres), but the Eiffel Tower stomps all over them. It's like me playing basketball with a small child - no competition (working, naturally, under the proviso that the hoop is no higher than me and the child is still getting to grips with basic motor functions). Back in 1889, the vast majority of the population were not widely travelled, but even for those who were, nothing like the Eiffel Tower had ever been seen before. And while some were appreciating the tower from an aesthetic perspective, and others a technical, the general public - with whom the Eiffel Tower was an immediate hit - were just standing at the base and gazing up in awe at 18,038 individual pieces of metal riveted together to create the tallest thing man had ever made.

It was exactly the effect that Gustave Eiffel, the man behind the construction had intended. Although he made out that the tower's height would have practical functions, allowing for weather studies, astronomical observations, other scientific experiments, as well as the defensive function of spotting the enemy from afar, nobody was fooled. The 1889 Paris Expo was France's opportunity to demonstrate to the world what a hip, modern, and above all, advanced nation it was after over a century of revolution, war, and general turmoil. The Eiffel Tower was at the centre of this. It was built as a literally giant show-off piece. Look what we can do, Paris called. Ooh, it's a big one, the world duly replied with glee.

As a concept, the Eiffel Tower wasn't exactly original. Mankind has enjoyed building towers ever since it got the hang of balancing rocks on top of each other. A few huge iron towers had already been proposed in the 19th Century well before Gustave got started. In 1833, The British inventor and engineer Richard Trevithick had planned a 1000-foot tower, topped with a statue, for London, but he died in the same year and the idea went with him. Another 1000-foot tower was again proposed for London in 1852. And in America, a 1000-foot tower was proposed for Philadelphia to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, but had faltered through lack of funds. The difference between these 1000-foot towers and Gustave Eiffel's one is that Gustave went ahead and did it. Even though he had to float his company to generate the cash, he pressed on. His entire reputation and career was at stake. Failure, or even significant delay for a project with a two-year time limit, would be catastrophic. This surely must have given him some moments of concern, but he was a calm, experienced man with self-belief to see him through. Which is why we remember Gustave Eiffel, a man who built a tower, as compared to all the men we don't remember, who never built towers and never even tried.

Of course, taking on anything unprecedented means that technical innovations are essential, and this certainly applied for an iron tower twice as tall as anything ever before. Fortunately, Gustave was in his element. In his fifties and with three decades of civil engineering and bridge building experience, not to mention being the man behind the Statue of Liberty's skeleton, he was used to constructing large iron frames and used to the large-scale organisation of a workforce that had to be extremely attentive to every small detail. In this regard, the Eiffel Tower was just a vertical version of what Gustave had been doing for many years. He planned ahead meticulously; hating trial and error, nothing was left to chance. All the individual pieces - all 18,038 of them - were prepared in his factory on the outskirts of Paris before being assembled on site. In the words of a biographer, David Harvie, it was "carried out as if using a giant Meccano set". No cutting or drilling was done on site.

The idea behind the structure of the Eiffel Tower could hardly be simpler: four huge curved pylons beginning from four separate corners at the base, and meeting further up for mutual support. Imagine standing in one spot and leaning until you fell over; now imagine being one of four people standing in a square formation, leaning into each other so that nobody falls but all keep each other propped up. You should, ideally, be sober. That's how the Eiffel Tower works. Take a look at it. The four legs continue to the very top, becoming the support, with two levels between the top and bottom meshing it all together for additional support. Gustave had all this precisely calculated. The arches you can see between each leg don't bear any of the load - they are decorative only, added to make the whole thing seem more stable for visitors. The only catch is that the curve means that the lifts can't operate in a straightforward vertical up-and-down way, which made things a little trickier to build - the lifts were the only significant construction delay for the Eiffel Tower. As it avoids the need for unnecessary embellishment, trusting structural function to give it its famous form and with the bare-bones lattice framework, it all weighs in at a remarkably lightweight 11,000 tons. By comparison, Titanic weighed over 50,000 tons, a cathedral weighs a couple of hundred thousand tons or more, and the Great Pyramid weighs several million tons. This means that the concrete foundations are only 7 metres deep, as the pressure exerted on the ground by the Eiffel Tower is only around 58-64 pounds per square inch. Or to put that in English, about the equivalent of a fat man sitting on a chair with spindly legs.

At any one time there were around 250 workmen, with the majority of that number working on the project from start to finish. Gustave - way ahead of his time - was very concerned about the safety of his men, using screens and guard-rails to protect them. Only one worker death is usually attributed to the Eiffel Tower, and that wasn't even during construction. A drunk workman sneaked into the closed site at night with his girlfriend, and began climbing up to show off. You can guess that it didn't end well. Another couple of deaths are sometimes mentioned, one of gangrene following an accident and another, very late on in construction, of unrecorded reasons, but overall the safety record is impressive. Compare it to the Forth Bridge in Scotland, another huge iron construction built at the same time, which cost the lives of 63 men.

What makes the safety record even more impressive, and astonishing, is that the workmen were allowed to drink alcohol on the job, at mealtimes at least. Wine, brandy, and rum: drinking on the job was commonplace in the 19th Century France. I was obviously born in the wrong century. Indeed, on Gustave's very first job in charge of a major bridge, decades earlier, he'd had to dive into the water to save a drunk worker that had fallen in. Rather than ban it, which would have likely caused more trouble than it was worth, Gustave carefully controlled it by having a canteen at discounted rates. This stopped the men popping off to local bars to chuck a couple of shots down them. As soon as the tower's first platform was ready, a canteen was installed there, thus making it more difficult to pop off for another cheeky cognac, and Gustave was able to ensure his workforce weren't too atrociously drunk while building the tallest tower of all time.

This was my second visit to the Eiffel Tower, and my expectations were high. My first visit, almost three years earlier, had less certain expectations. The visit had had been very much in the passing. During an 8-hour flight layover, instead of just hanging about the grim Charles de Gaulle airport - surely a contender should I ever concoct an "anti-Wonder" project - myself and a colleague popped into Paris for the day. Our target was not imaginative - the Eiffel Tower was the clear attraction, and the poor Notre-Dame barely got a second glance. It was a beautiful spring morning with clear blue skies, pretty much the perfect conditions for viewing. As perhaps the most recognisable structure on earth, the Eiffel Tower comes with no small amount of hype, and as a result I was preparing for a sense of disappointment upon first seeing it. The ideal state for visiting any location is with a mind wiped free of preconceptions, sheltered from the hype of others, but this is clearly an impossible state with the Eiffel Tower. But happily, I was not at all disappointed. In fact, I was so impressed, I took a photo with my battered old camera and sent it to Danielle.

That's the picture. I'm not much of a photographer, and my phone doesn't have much of a camera, so I suppose it's testament to the Eiffel Tower on a clear day that Danielle refused to believe I was actually there. I'm not sure what exactly she thought I was doing, but she accused me - mostly in jest, I like to think - of simply lifting the photo from the internet.

This time, to remove any doubts, I took Danielle with me. Our hotel for our four days of Christmas in Paris was within easy walking distance of the tower, perhaps around 10 to 15 minutes away. We passed by every day, usually approaching from the other end of the Champs de Mars, the park area it is situated in, and passing underneath the tower. By day, by night, close up or afar, I have to admit my opinion barely changed from that very first impression that spring morning. The Eiffel Tower is wonderful.

It's huge, of course, something unchanged since the public first gazed upon it in 1889. Paris isn't a city of skyscrapers, so even though the world has built many higher towers and buildings since 1889, Paris has not. In the La Defense suburb of the city, there are a bunch of buildings at around the 200 metre mark, but they are all distant from the city centre. Otherwise, the somewhat monolithic 210-metre-tall Tour Montparnasse office skyscraper is the only nearby contender, and it's still not a close competition. A bit like me playing basketball with a medium-sized child (still without basic motor functions, mind). Standing too close to the Eiffel Tower, as with any huge building, the sense of scale becomes hard to grasp, but from a little distance it is realised easier. Height-wise, it may no longer be a world-beater, but that hardly matters, because it still very adequately conveys the sense of size and grandeur. It dominates. It has real presence.

But size isn't everything. The Eiffel Tower became famous because of its size, but that wasn't why it remained famous. Let's compare it to the highest structure in Europe currently, the Ostankino Tower is Moscow. It was completed in 1967, was once the highest freestanding structure in the world and is still the sixth, standing at a colossal 540.1 metres. Have you heard of it? Probably not. Because it looks absolutely awful.

Building something really big doesn't necessarily mean it will look good. The Eiffel Tower might be big, but it also beautiful. It's a fairly uncompromising kind of beauty, not being adorned with intricate sculptures or fancy colonnades or marble domes: structure rather than sculpture, function rather than fancy. Except for the decorative arches at the first level - which do look nice - the Eiffel Tower is a practical design. A lattice design, it is built up of iron beams criss-crossing each other, and the four "legs" leaning against each other. But, as I've seen with some of the best structures out there, from the Notre-Dame to the Filipino Rice Terraces to the Millau Viaduct, practical architecture can also be beautiful. It can be a joy to behold, making a kind of instinctive visual sense. In architecture, as in nature, function and beauty are an intrinsic part of a formula in great design. Gustave Eiffel's massive tower of iron gave us the industrial version of this formula.

The Eiffel Tower is best viewed, in my opinion, a short distance along the Champs de Mars, or from the other side, at the Trocadero. Both these allow the viewer to appreciate the entire tower in its splendour. It is both muscular - the lower section especially conveys strength - and elegant, with the curves tapering to the peak. The Champs de Mars was just a handy patch of land back in the 1880s, once a military venue but later used for horse-racing and exhibitions - way back in 1783 it had even hosted the Montgolfier brothers' first demonstration of the hot air balloon. The choice of it for the tower was a masterstroke, or possibly just a stroke of luck. Not being crowded out by other buildings, the Eiffel Tower has space around it that the hordes of tourist do little to interfere with. It might be bustling but it doesn't feel congested, and that's pretty good going for one of the most visited attractions in the world. Every Wonder depends upon its surroundings to some degree; some, like the Great Wall, owe everything to them, others, like the Terracotta Warriors, are spoiled by them. The Eiffel Tower, being in a fairly low-rise city, and given space in an open strip of land, is allowed by Paris to be the star of the show.

Indeed, during a normal day of sightseeing in Paris, the Eiffel Tower pops into repeated view. You can't get away from it. Wander by the Seine, climb up Montmartre, stroll by the Place de la Concorde - oh, there's the Eiffel Tower again. It makes for a pretty handy landmark if you're lost. I have to admit, on grey days, such as most of our Christmas break, the top part of the Eiffel Tower doesn't look quite as inspiring. The Eiffel Tower is best viewed as a whole: the bottom part is all strength and grace; the top half, viewed in isolation above the rooftops, is a little more "generic metal tower". This changes at night. At 5pm each day, the lights would come on and the tower would glow yellow. Even better, and I guess it was a festive treat only, for a few minutes on the hour every hour after dark, the lights would twinkle like fairy lights on a Christmas tree. If you like twinkly things, you're in for a treat. Danielle loved it. Even I, not usually weak at the knees by twinkling lights, thought it awfully attractive. You'll have to forgive my hopeless photo though, and use your imagination.

Weirdly, after days of getting a little thrill every time I saw the Eiffel Tower, whether close up or distant, the only real let down was actually climbing the thing. Danielle and I decided to do this on our last full day, which was Christmas Day. The Eiffel Tower is open on Christmas, but very unfortunately it happened to be especially windy - and the lift to the top was closed. We were able to go up to the second level, which still gives a great view, but going halfway up a giant tower is never quite the same as going all the way up. The masses of tourists,which are barely an issue when wandering around by the base, suddenly became a bit more annoying, with unending numbers of loud-talking foreigners pushing past each other to get another photo of something else. After days of getting terrific views of Paris from the top of the Notre-Dame and the Sacre-Coeur, the second level of the Eiffel Tower just offered a similar view from a different angle. The novelty was gone a little. Still, it was rather pretty.

On a warmer day, with a blue sky, and access to the top, I've no doubt climbing the Eiffel Tower would be a great experience. On a grey, windy, cold day, restricted to halfway up, it wasn't so remarkable. In the end, I probably enjoyed the walk down the steps to the ground most of all.

Another time, I hope. The Eiffel Tower is something I expect to see again and again in my life.

So, back to my opening question: Why? Why is a big tower made out of metal so famous? Why is it still so celebrated? These days, there are lots of tall structures, and the Eiffel Tower is no longer unique. Indeed, it has lots of virtually identical copies. We can appreciate the technical expertise that went into it, indeed we can more-or-less see it given the structure is so skeletal and on display - but these days the technical appreciation is from a more historical perspective. Building a new Eiffel Tower probably wouldn't be too taxing. The height and technical ingenuity are what originally made the tower famous, but what has kept it famous since is the sheer visceral visual appeal. It's massive, and it looks great. There's plenty of space to stand back and enjoy it. Being built in the modern age, it has benefitted from an increasingly global media, whether news or entertainment, and has now become famous just for being itself. Like a celebrity, and like all the most famous Wonders out there, it doesn't need to do anything any more, it just needs to be itself. In the words of the author Joseph Harriss, referring to its initial reception by visitors to the Paris Expo in 1889: “The masses responded to it with undisguised glee, appreciating it for what it basically is – a gigantic toy”. The Eiffel Tower is the world's favourite toy.

Some criteria then.

Size: 324 metres tall. Once the tallest building ever built, it's still pretty damn massive.
Engineering: Nothing like it had ever been built before. Bridge-building engineering technology turned vertical, it was completed in an amazingly quick two years, and without any significant problems.
Artistry: Muscular yet elegant, this giant iron tower is surprisingly graceful. On paper, it should be a brute, in reality it's sublime.
Age/Durability: Over a hundred years old, it gets repainted every seven years to prevent rust. Providing this level of maintenance continues, it'll keep going.
Fame/Iconicity: The most famous man-made construction in the world.
Context: A giant metal tower in the middle of Paris city centre? Just perfect, somehow.
Back Story: The centrepiece of the 1889 World Fair in Paris, it was the tallest thing, by far, ever built, and shot to immediate fame. It has become a fundamental part of the city ever since.
Originality: Sure, it was hardly the first tower of all time, but it was the very first tower of such scale. Nothing like it had ever been seen before. Now widely copied, it was truly unique in its day.
Wow Factor: Make sure you approach it right, from the other end of the Champs de Mars or from the Trocadero. That way you see it in all its splendour, and all its "wow". Truly impressive to behold.

With the Eiffel Tower, it's pretty hard to separate your own untainted impressions from the sheer hype and fame. Every time you see it, you're not just seeing a big metal tower, you're seeing a celebrity. "Wow, it's the Eiffel Tower", I kept thinking whenever it came into view. For many, certainly those of a more critical bent, I don't doubt there's a sense of disappointment. Nothing can live up to that level of expectation. For me, however, my initial sense of expectation had gone full circle, so I was almost expecting to be disappointed due to the excessive hype around it, and therefore found myself pleasantly impressed. More than that, incredibly impressed. Repeat viewings over four days in Christmas only reinforced that. The Eiffel Tower is a hugely charismatic building. It's not an empty celebrity, simply famous without substance, it has real style, real visual impact. Size, beauty, history, innovation, and sheer wow, it has a transfixing presence and fully deserves it's iconic status in Paris, France, and the world. Is it one of the Seven Wonders of the World? It has a damn good chance. While not quite matching the magnificence of the Taj Mahal or the Great Wall - and surely nothing ever will - it's certainly a few notches ahead of the next in line, the Millau Viaduct. A strong number three position on my list then, as I write, and with every chance of being in that final Seven.

The Seven Wonders of the World So Far
1. Taj Mahal
2. Great Wall of China
3. Eiffel Tower
4. Millau Viaduct
5. Angkor Wat
6. Bagan
7. Sydney Opera House

Other Wonders
Notre-Dame de Paris

Kailash Temple in Ellora
Petronas Towers

Notable Landmarks (or National Wonders)
The Golden Temple
Shwedagon Pagoda
Forbidden City
Bodhi Tataung Standing Buddha
Banaue Rice Terraces
Temple of the Emerald Buddha

Interesting Places
Ananda Temple in Bagan
Marina Bay Sands
Terracotta Army
Leshan Giant Buddha

Agra Fort
Ayutthaya Historic Park
Lotus Temple
Three Gorges Dam


  1. Good to see Millau Viaduct knocked out of the bronze medal position.

  2. These things are always subject to subsequent tweaks, but I think the Eiffel Tower is going to be a strong contender. Overall, I think France is going to be figuring quite a bit at the top end of this eventual list. The Millau Viaduct still has a fighting chance though - I look forward to a second visit when I go travelling next.

  3. Just by googling about heights of highest buildings and churches , I came across your blog ,, and what do I see ,, the wonderful Eiffel tower. I was just there in Paris last week ,, Love it ,, and the Sacre Coeur too ,, Have you been to the top of Montparnasse tower ,, not a lovely building at all , but the views from the very top are amazing, Anne

  4. was in Paris a few weeks after Anne and the first sight of the Eiffel Tower was from Trocadero.....It was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen....We did go up all three levels and the sights were amazing... Also did Sacre well as Monparnasse and we did go up that as some great pics of the tower from there....also did Notre Dame and The Louvre, the Seine, the love lock bridges... if was a most amazing trip of a lifetime! I can't wait to go back