France wanted to put on a great show for the centenary of the Revolution when it hosted the World’s Fair in 1889. They would show off its industrial power, scientific advancement, and cultural reach. France last put on a Fair during the reign of Louis-Napoleon in 1867. It was a grand success, but it was organized under a unified and central government. By the 1880s, France was a divided country both politically and culturally. Could a country at odds with itself put on an acceptable show?
The French government needed a central monument to pull it all together. Officials requested proposals. They received over a hundred.
For years, people all over the world had wanted to attempt to build a tower 300 meters (or a thousand feet), but to date, no one had undertaken the challenge. Maurice Koechlin believed technology could finally answer the challenge and wondered whether it could be the Fair’s centerpiece.
In 1884, he sketched a tower and set his mind to some mathematical calculations. He took into account the weight of the iron as well as the wind resistance. He presented his idea to his boss Gustav Eiffel, but Eiffel demurred. Why waste so much energy on a temporary structure?
Over the next three months, Eiffel’s imagination caught fire as evidence by a patent application submitted by Koechlin and Eiffel for a “scheme rendering it possible to construct metallic piers and pylons more than 300 meters in height” (Brown, For the Soul of France, p.139).
In their submission to the Fair, Eiffel boasted that the tower would stand twice as tall as the next highest man-made structure in the world. This tower would be an undeniable monument to the stature of the entire French nation. Wasn’t this a testament to scientific progress and the triumph of the mind: a perfect metaphor for the Revolution? Some wondered whether it was a vacuous, meaningless, and ugly monument to pride that could only be compared to the Tower of Babel.
At the time, people had a difficult time evaluating the aesthetic value of the design. The architectural arts had yet to accept iron as an aesthetic material, or even much of a structural material. Many looked at the design for the tower and could find no artistic precedent. At best, it seemed to be a bridge that reached into the sky, to nowhere. Doesn’t a great nation deserve a great monument, in the lasting beauty of stone and marble? Perhaps the engineer should leave monument design to the architects.
Eiffel saw the beauty in the possibility. He touted the unique design that utilized curved edges that would cut through the wind. He spoke of the way the tower bursts from the piers. But, he seemed aware of the lack of precedence for the structure and sought ways to make it practical. It could be used as a lookout in times of war or an observatory in times of peace.
In the end, the tower beat out 106 other proposals to win the contract.
Raising the tower took 26 months, most of which took place high above the Paris streets. The workmen were not easily seen and never heard from the street. The structure’s growth felt more organic than mechanical.
When completed, the tower’s height made it omnipresent in the city. It seemed as if no one could live in the city without an opinion on Eiffel’s tower. And opinion was split.
Even before the tower had reached its height, forty-seven artists and writers sent an open letter to the government protesting the vandalism to the city’s beauty: “Writers, painters, sculptors, architects, passionate lovers of the heretofore intact beauty of Paris, French taste has been flouted, French art and history are threatened by the erection in our midst of the useless, monstrous Eiffel Tower, and we protest against it with all our strength and indignation” (Brown, For the Soul of France, p.146).
Vile insults were thrown: France was becoming like…like America! Or even more so! To some, it proved the soulless nature of modernity: commercial, industrial, secular, and lacking aesthetic quality.
Today, Eiffel’s tower is an enduring symbol of Paris and one of the most visited tourist sites in the world.
Tours daily from 9:30 am to 11:00 pm. Tickets to the elevator should be purchased online in advance as they run out. A ticket with elevator access to the entire tower, including the summit, costs 14 €. Elevator access only to the second floor costs 8.5 €. Tickets to the stairs can only be bought on site.