THE EIFFEL TOWER
Discover the origins and history of the most recognisable edifice in France.
Built for the 1889 Exposition Universelle, celebrating the centennial of the French Revolution, France’s most famous icon was the subject of controversy right from its birth. Not that Eiffel’s ‘baby’ was so unique; just a few decades earlier in 1866, architect Victor Baltard, who was one of the pioneers of metal architecture, rebuilt food market Les Halles in a similar style. But Les Halles only covered some 40,000m² of land, whereas at the time Eiffel’s 300m-high iron structure was the tallest building in the world.
How it nearly never happened
The tower’s creator, Alexandre Gustave Eiffel, was born in Dijon in 1832 and spent long years learning his trade, before becoming a fully fledged entrepreneur specialising in the new iron building technique known as la charpente métallique. After building several Italian viaducts, a Hungarian train station and the structural elements of the Statue of Liberty, Eiffel began work on that famous tower.
As soon as work began in February 1887, Le Temps, one of one of the most important daily newspapers during the French Third Republic, published a petition signed by renowned personalities including Maupassant, Zola, and Charles Garnier, architect of Paris’ celebrated Palais Garnier, demanding that the tower should not be built because it would be “ugly and purposeless”.
The letter read: “We have come, writers, painters, sculptors, architects, passionate enthusiasts of the hitherto untouched beauty of Paris, to protest with all our strength, all our indignation, in the name of the unknown French taste, in the name of art and of French history threatened, against the erection, in the heart of our capital, of the useless and monstrous Eiffel Tower, which public malignity, often marked by common sense and the spirit of justice, has already named of ‘Tower of Babel.’
Using his right to reply, in the same newspaper Eiffel retorted: “There is […] in that which is colossal […] a unique charm to which the ordinary theories of art cannot be applied.”
It took two years to build the tower and, for those long years, the arguments flew back and forth, with essayist Léon Bloy describing the project as a “truly tragic lamppost” and novelist Joris-karl Huysmans declaring that it would look like “a suppository riddled with holes”. Despite the constant flak, however, work continued and on 31 March 1889 the French flag was hoisted to the top of Eiffel’s iron tower and visitors from all over Europe flocked to see the gigantic monument. Faced with the tower’s immense success, detractors were forced to admit that Eiffel might have had something after all.
On the side of the tower, under the first balcony, 72 names of French scientists, engineers and mathematicians are engraved in recognisation of their contributions to their fields. However, the list has been criticised for not including any women; most notably Sophie Germain, a mathematician whose theory of elasticity was used in the construction of the tower itself.
Eiffel’s battle to save his ‘baby’
But the battle wasn’t over for the tower’s creator. The land on which the monument was built had been leased to Eiffel by the city of Paris but only for twenty years, after which it would be taken down and sold for scrap metal. In order to ensure his oeuvre’s durability he had to prove its utility.
Over the next two decades Eiffel assailed local authorities with visits and letters hoping to convince them that the culmination of his life’s work should remain. Finally in 1906, when Eiffel was
74 years old, he won the long battle to save his tower by installing an antenna on top and using it to transmit wireless messages. With the increasing need for wireless telegraphy, the city decided to renew Eiffel’s concession when it expired in 1909. Today there are more than 100 antennae broadcasting to the world from the top of Eiffel’s tower.
Becoming a French icon
With the tower’s resounding success, spin-offs were quick to follow. Blackpool had an iron tower by 1894 and Berlin was soon to follow. Finally, in 1958, Tokyo built a taller tower, topping Eiffel’s by thirteen metres. From Eiffel tower lamp stands to bedside mats and candlesticks, smaller versions of the tower were flooding the market too. The tower that was built as a tribute to the French Revolution, had become the mantelpiece bric à brac of many European homes.
By the 1920s, the once-vilified monument had become an icon of modernity and an inspiration for artists including Utrillo, Dufy and Chagall, along with filmmakers ranging from Truffaut to Lelouch, and fashion designers like Jean Paul Gaultier, who even created a cheeky collection of Eiffel tower underwear.
The Eiffel Tower remained the tallest building in the world right up to the 1930s, when it was dethroned by the Chrysler building in New York. Even so, the monument continues to attract visitors from all over the world and the French have voted it their favourite monument in countless polls.
Since its construction, more than 300 million people have climbed the tower, which is a far greater number than its creator could have imagined in his wildest dreams and quite an achievement for a French icon that narrowly missed heading for the scrapyard.