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Eiffel Tower, row & triumph

Of the thousands who visit the landmark every day, very few have an idea about the hard time it ran into at the time of inception

Eiffel Tower, row & triumph

A view of the Eiffel Tower as it stands on the Champ de Mars.

BN Goswamy

The Eiffel Tower, the unmistakable symbol of Paris, is 134 years old and, with six million paying visitors a year, it is the most profitable monument in the city. Nearly 300 million people have visited the Tower since its completion.

— From a publicity brochure

…this odious pillar of bolted metal!
Imagine for a moment a vertiginously ridiculous architecture as a gigantic black factory chimney, overlooking Paris, crushing with its barbaric mass the Notre Dame , the Sainte Chapelle, the Saint-Jacques Tower, the Louvre, the dome of the Invalides, the Arc de Triomphe, all our monuments humiliated, all our architectures dwarfed, which will disappear in this astounding dream. And for twenty years we shall see spreading over the whole city, still vibrating with the genius of so many centuries, we shall see the odious shadow of the odious pillar of bolted metal spreading like an inkblot.

— Excerpt from an 1887 petition against the tower by a large group of intellectuals and artists

IT must be hard to locate a soul that has been to Paris and not seen the Eiffel Tower. This enormous wrought iron structure, rising to a height of a little more than 1,000 feet, the equivalent of 81 storeys, straddling the space on the Champ de Mars, is simply there. Nearly everyone goes and sees it and brings back a publicity brochure which submerges you in statistics and facts: that it started being constructed in 1887; it took two years, two months and five days to complete; the total weight of the tower is around 10,000 tons, comprising 18,000 metallic parts joined together by 2.5 million rivets; it has three floors and takes 1,665 steps to reach the top; it is lit up at night with 20,000 light bulbs; when it is repainted every seven years, nearly 60 tons of paint are required; for long years, it was the tallest structure in the world till overtaken by the Chrysler Building in New York. And so on.

The tower in the process of construction. Old photograph of 1888.

Among all those visitors, few, very few, know something about the hard time that even the idea — not just the construction of this gigantic structure — ran into, to begin with. The year was 1887 and plans were being made for the upcoming World Fair to be held in Paris, in which to dazzle the world with something entirely new and unprecedented, something at the cutting edge of modernity. It was to be completed by 1889, to coincide with the celebrations of the 100th year of the great French Revolution also. The idea of a 1,000-foot tower had originally come from the United States, where such a project was envisioned for the Philadelphia World Exposition, only to be abandoned because it was found to be impossible to realise. But the French do not know the meaning of the word ‘impossible’, those proposing this project for Paris said. They were referring to Napoleon’s famous pronouncement that the word will not be found in a French dictionary. A competition was launched for a tower with a square base of 25 metres and the height of approximately 1,000 feet. The project went to the firm of Gustave Eiffel, an engineer whose name the tower bears, for, he was the one whose firm completed it: exactly on time, incidentally.

The names of three scientists engraved on the side of the tower.

But it was one thing to win the competition, quite another to wade through the opposition of the cultural elite of France: they hated the idea of an ugly-looking ‘pillar of bolted metal’ towering over the gracious city and its monuments. As many as 300 people, including Guy de Maupassant and Alexandre Dumas Jr, signed the petition of protest but all this came too late. The project had been officially approved, and the structure was on its way. Gustave Eiffel was not only a skilled engineer and a scientist, but obviously a savvy man as far as understanding the politics, if any, of these things. He projected the tower under construction as showcasing France’s modern “mechanical and industrial prowess” on the world stage. As it started nearing completion, it had begun to be seen as a marvel of precision and speed. In his public statements, Eiffel said that the tower would symbolise “not only the art of the modern engineer, but also the century of industry and science in which we are living”.

A drawing of the very top of the tower with notes.

What is more, he wanted the tower to be seen as celebrating the greatest scientists of France, and chose 72 names from among the many that suggested themselves. These names — of scientists, engineers and mathematicians — were boldly engraved in words of metal on different sides of the tower in recognition of their contributions. The tower was beginning to be seen as an ‘invocation of science’. For himself, Eiffel built a room at the very top of the tower, meant exclusively for himself and his close friends, like the inventor Thomas Edison. What he did in addition to all this was to set up, at the pinnacle of the tower, a radio antenna and wireless telegraph transmitter, giving the whole structure a different role, lending it another manifestly practical aspect. By this time, the tower had begun almost with affection to be spoken of as ‘La Dame de Fer’: the Iron Lady. The original idea, when the project was under consideration, was that the tower would be taken down after 20 years. But when those 20 years had passed, no one, really no one, and certainly not the sarkar of Paris, wanted that to happen. The schedule was to dismantle the tower in 1909. We are in 2023 now and the tower still stands. It is stated that when, during the World War II, Paris was, for some time, occupied by German forces, Hitler wanted the tower to be pulled down. The order, however, was never carried out.

Things happen, and the logic of time takes over. The petition of protest by the cultural elite which began thus — “We, writers, painters, sculptors, architects and passionate devotees of the hitherto untouched beauty of Paris, protest with all our strength, with all our indignation in the name of slighted French taste, against the erection… of this useless and monstrous Eiffel Tower” — is forgotten and lies in some dustbin of memory. The writer, Guy de Maupassant, however, was not reconciled. It has been reported that he would go for lunch to a restaurant located at one level of the tower every day. Why? Because, he said, “it was the one place in Paris where the tower was not visible”.

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