Abstract and Algebraic Beauty

“France has neither winter, nor summer, nor morals. Apart from these drawbacks it is a fine country.”
— Mark Twain in Jill Jonnes’ Eiffel’s Tower

It was cold and gray the day we visited the Eiffel Tower in November.

In this third shot, la tour is seen through the Wall for Peace Memorial, on the opposite end of Paris’ Champ-de-Mars, the vast public green space that was the site of the 1889 World’s Fair for which Eiffel built his now famous tower.

I wanted to see the tower again up close because while we were in Paris I was reading Jill Jonnes’ fascinating Eiffel’s Tower: the thrilling story behind Paris’s beloved monument and the extraordinary World’s Fair that introduced it. Evidently Eiffel’s detractors were as long winded in their early criticism of the tower as Jonnes was when she came up with her subtitle. One early denunciation of the giant tower called it “`an inartistic … scaffolding of crossbars and angled iron’ and excoriating above all its `hideously unfinished’ look.” The epithet scaffolding was everywhere heard among artists, architects, journalists, politicians, and neighbors. Other fin de siècle barbs called the Eiffel Tower a lighthouse, nail, chandelier, industrial behemoth, gigantic factory chimney, barbarous mass, odious column of bolted metal and, my favorite, the metal asparagus. Charles Garnier, the celebrated architect who designed the Palais Garnier for the Paris Opera, called it a “funnel planted on its fat butt.” And politician Pierre Tirard offered this fabulous nationalistic put down, saying that the tower was “anti-artistic, contrary to French genius … a project more in character with America (where taste is not yet very developed) than Europe, much less France.”

No one had ever dreamt of, much less designed or built, elevators to carry people so high or at such an angle. Eventually four distinct sets of elevators were built to carry people to the top -- one from the ground to the first platform; one from the first platform to the second; a third from the second platform halfway to the top, where visitors would change elevators for the final lift to the summit. Early visitors to the tower, and of course every single person who constructed it, climbed.

The engineering and design, the sheer scale of the thing, are awe inspiring. Due in large part to Jonnes’ book, I visited in November with a distinct and unavoidable sense of, I don’t know what else to call it, reverence. I was seeing the tower (or trying to see it) not as the monument it has become, but as the unprecedented, gargantuan, incomprehensible, sensational spectacle that it was when Eiffel conceived and built it. Imagine watching it go up — seeing it rise, day by day, higher than any other building in the entire world, dominating (and forever changing and defining, though no one really knew it) the skyline of Paris. I sailed to the top of it back in 1994, when I was there on a high school trip, never bothering to pay attention to what a marvel it is, to study its composition and to imagine what it meant to build such a structure at a time when the tallest thing around was a third the height. When it was finished in 1889 Eiffel’s tower quickly surpassed the other highest points in Paris. Notre Dame Cathedral stands at 217 feet; the Pantheon at 266 feet; and the dome of Les Invalides at 344 feet. For perspective, the Eiffel Tower’s second platform is 387 feet high.

The domes of Les Invalides and the Pantheon through the mist from the Eiffel Tower's first platform.

Les Invalides over the Mansard rooftops of Paris, from the Eiffel Tower.

For an American comparison which, at the time, the French loved to make, the recently completed (1884) Washington Monument rises 555 feet, and took forty years to complete. By contrast, where the new French tower was concerned, it took “exactly two years, four months, and one week since Eiffel had broken ground,” and the Eiffel Tower was twice as tall. “Naturally, many French were swelling with pride at the mere prospect of dwarfing the gigantic American obelisk.”

Constructed for the 1889 Exposition Universelle, Eiffel’s la tour en fer de trois cents metres had won the contract but not the hearts of Parisians. At least not yet. As part of Eiffel’s contract with Paris and the French government, the tower was to stand for twenty years in order to generate enough revenue for Eiffel to pay off the loans he had to secure to build it without a subsidy — the government offered him 1.5 million of the required 5 million francs it would take to do the job. He had to raise the rest himself. In addition, “he agreed to indemnify the state for the Comtesse de Poix and her neighbors’ lawsuits, and any possible consequence of the tower’s collapsing.” People were worried about it being ugly, they were worried about it becoming (literally) a lightning rod and, most of all, they were worried that it would fall down. And then there was the Comtesse who, along with a neighbor friend, filed an injunction against Eiffel because his tower “`will block up for many years the most agreeable part of the Champ de Mars, and the only one in which she has been accustomed to take her daily exercise.'”

During construction, seven million holes were drilled in the iron plates:

Every “rivet hole had to be drawn in at precisely the right spot, so that all the on-site workers would have to do was to place one-third of 2.5 million rivets, the rest being placed at the shops in advance … all calculations had to be accurate to one-tenth of a millimeter.”

When assembled, the “iron forms a vast complicated network …”

Eventually, as the tower rose, the tide of criticism began to turn. There were still vociferous detractors, but once-critic Albert Wolff wrote in Le Figaro such phrases as “`a grandiose marvel as it rises majestically in the air,’ `the audacity of its conception, the mathematical precision of its execution,’ and `at once graceful and imposing, having naught in common with that tower of Babel, which, if it ever did exist, rose no higher than a fifth-story window.'”

And from the Vicomte de Vogüé, “`There was in this iron mountain the elements of a new beauty, elements difficult to define, because no grammar of art had as yet supplied the formula, but evident to the most biased art critics. People admired its combination of lightness with power, the daring centering of the great arches, and the erect curves of the principal rafters, which … leap towards the clouds in a single bound. What [people] admired above all was the visible logic of this structure … logic that translated into something visible … an abstract and algebraic beauty.'”

Eiffel had become "a living refutation of all monarchical doctrine. The gilded names engraved on the Eiffel Tower's first-floor frieze were not those of rulers, but French scientists, men whose knowledge had advanced the world. The tower was elegant, powerful, and playful, but its ultimate message was political, in a world where kings and queens still ruled much of the earth."

Perhaps most interesting is that, when it was built, the idea was to let it stand for just twenty years. We see how that’s turned out. Today the Eiffel Tower is one of the most enduring and recognizable monuments in the world, inextricably linked to Paris and arguably the city’s defining presence. The tower was a triumph at the World’s Fair — though, Jonnes argues, not its centerpiece. There were many other personalities and spectacles competing for attention at the fair, and her book also tells the tales of Buffalo Bill and his Wild West show, of Annie Oakley and her sharp shooting, of Van Gogh and Gauguin and les Refusés; she spends a good portion of the narrative on Thomas Edison and his presence in Paris during the exhibition; she takes us through the other numerous pavilons, through the immense galerie des machines, and introduces us to countless characters in art, politics, and journalism. The story is one of intrigue, perseverance, and ingenuity in addition to being one about engineering and design.

Twenty years after it was built the tower still had its detractors who wanted to see it torn down. And yet, by now other factors were in play, principally “its proven value to meteorology, aviation, and telegraphy.” I like to imagine, however, that it was something else that ultimately kept the tower standing. It was eventually recognized as “light and graceful … in spite of its gigantic size. … an imposing monument, not unworthy of Paris.”  Jonnes writes of the committee to advise on tearing down the tower, “Moreover, the committee worried about foreign opinion: `Do you not think that the world would be astonished to see us destroy something in our city which continues to be a subject of astonishment for others?’ And so, the City of Paris remained ambivalent about its controversial landmark.”

Maybe it was ambivalence that saved it; maybe it was national pride. Either way, this month the Eiffel Tower turns one hundred and twenty three.

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7 Responses to Abstract and Algebraic Beauty

  1. Kim says:

    I really really really LOVE these pics — especially the 2nd one. Yay for this blog (and you). Thanks for this.
    k

  2. Wendy says:

    I will never forget the day I went to the top of that amazing tower. It was so much more than I was expecting. Thank you for giving me that gift the first time and reminding me of it now.

  3. tracy says:

    Foucault! Holla!

  4. Pingback: O Death | Randa's Fans

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