Skepticism, Controversy, and the Iron Lady
October 1, 2003
In my house, the Eiffel tower is everywhere. There are posters, photographs, statues, jewelry, even a cookie jar shaped like the Eiffel Tower. Is it because I love Paris? Maybe. Is it because I’m obsessed with the Eiffel Tower? Well, kinda… But mostly it’s because the Eiffel Tower is a symbol to me, a symbol of chic, romantic worldliness.
As a matter of fact, it’s a similar symbol to many people around the world. A. Parisians themselves view it as a symbol of their city’s romantic beauty and architectural achievement. But they haven’t always felt that way. I’m going to take you back to the beginning, back when the tower was just a proposal surrounded by controversy and skepticism. I’ll show you that many people in Paris condemned its construction as ridiculous. Then I’ll show how that attitude shifted dramatically and lead to the Eiffel Tower prevailing as the proud symbol of France that it is today.
But let’s start at the beginning. In June 1886, Gustave Eiffel won Paris’s competition for the symbol of the 1889 World’s Fair, according to the book, Paris: Past and Present. Out of the 107 proposals, his design for the Eiffel Tower won unanimously. The 1889 World’s Fair was an important event to the French not only because it was being held in Paris, but also because that year marked the 100th anniversary of the French Revolution. Eiffel’s design was a perfect demonstration of France’s modern engineering accomplishments. His major achievements were in the field of aerodynamics that eventually played a role in future aeronautical developments. As detailed in the Macmillan travel guide titled Paris, the complex architectural structure of the tower was designed to withstand extreme wind pressure (up to 134 mph). Construction began in Jan 1887 and from the beginning it was a source of intense scandal. Many people felt that the beauty of Paris was ruined by “that ugly factory chimney”. The design of the tower aroused fierce controversy from prominent names around Paris. Eiffel-Tower.com, the official website, reports that an article titled “Protest Against the Tower of Monsieur Eiffel” was published in the newspaper, Le Temps and expressed the spirited protests of several important people involved in French architecture, literature, and the arts. Paris: Past and Present states that petitions of disgust condemning the “bizarre” construction were circulating the city. Another vigorous public protest claimed the tower resembled a “gigantic skewer good for poking the clouds”.
The beauty of the tower was not the only thing that critics weren’t convinced of. The construction company was forced to provide insurance to the surrounding homes and businesses because there were considerable doubts to the stability of the structure both during and after construction. They were afraid this symbol of technical advances in French engineering was going to collapse at any moment.
The tower was also criticized for having no practical use. Because it was a temporary attraction, built solely for show at the World’s Fair, some people felt this “useless monstrosity” would litter the sky for the next 20 years, the length of its lease, until they could finally tear it down.
Despite all of the controversy, the crew of 300 men completed construction in a little over 2 years and the Eiffel Tower was inaugurated in May 1889. Now that we’ve seen how many people didn’t like the idea of the Eiffel Tower, let’s see how their feelings changed once it was finished.
When construction was completed, the Eiffel Tower was 1,052 feet high. (And 6” taller in the summer when it’s warm.) The Macmillan travel guide says it took 7500 tons of iron and was made of 15,000 iron sections that were held together by 2.5 million rivets. When it was built, it was the tallest man-made structure in the world. It held that honor for over 40 years until the Chrysler Building was erected in New York City in 1930.
At the World’s Fair of 1889, the Eiffel Tower was greeted with enormously popular success with over 2 million visitors to the fair, according to the website. This was the beginning of a shift in attitude towards the structure. People began to realize that the tower could be used for practical purposes beyond the aesthetic value it did or didn’t provide. As early as 1889, the tower was used as a laboratory for numerous scientific measurements and experiments. Soon, people began to take advantage of the height of the tower and utilized it for other functions such as radio telegraphy, meteorology and aerodynamic research. In 1909 when the lease was up for the temporary structure, the Eiffel Tower was saved from demolition primarily because it housed vital radio equipment.
The citizens of Paris realized the tower was attracting other kinds of attention too. Not only was it crucial to scientific innovation in France, but it was also a source of entertainment and amazement for people visiting from around the world. The official website states that the tower has been descended by a parachute and a bicycle and even ascended by mountain climbers. It is the most well known monument and the most popular paying tourist attraction around the world. Currently, an average of over 6 million people visit the tower each year.
Although it was originally a source of scandal, the world’s embrace of the Eiffel Tower seems to have rubbed off on the citizens of Paris. It is now such a part of the landscape that it’s the hub around which the city revolves. Whether it is because of its scientific value or its creative distinctiveness, it is now one of France’s most cherished landmarks.
The Eiffel Tower has completely evolved from the scandalous idea of one engineer to the inspiration to many people around the world. When visitors to my house see a photograph of the Parisian skyline in my hallway, no one has ever questioned me about the bizarre ugly factory chimney or asked me why there’s a ridiculous monstrosity mucking up the otherwise beautiful city. Even though everyone doesn’t pay homage to the architectural beauty of the Eiffel Tower like I do, everyone recognizes it. Everyone knows it’s uniquely French. Parisians know that it defines them and their city to the rest of the world. Not only does the iron lady demonstrate French innovation in architectural achievement and scientific advancement, but it also expresses the Parisian style of chic, avant-garde, artistic expression.
Cabos, Madeleine. Paris. 3rd ed. New York: Macmillan Travel, 1995.
Pozzoli, M. Ercole. Paris: Past and Present. Verelli, Italy: Barnes & Noble, 2001.
The Official Site of the Eiffel Tower. Documentation. 12 Sept 2003. The Société Nouvelle d'exploitation de la Tour Eiffel. 2003. <http://220.127.116.11/teiffel/uk/documentation/dossiers/index.html>