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Is the Eiffel Tower a Controversial Work of Art?

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: History
Wordcount: 2250 words Published: 23rd Aug 2021

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During the 18th and 19th century, France underwent many changes that were both terrifying and extravagant. After suffering defeat by the Prussians during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, France entered a period of civil uprising. This “time of tension, contradiction, change, and anticipation” became known as Belle Epoque (Harris, 1). The Belle Epoque included the last two decades of the 19th century, when France’s economy flourished. During the Belle Epoque era, French citizens fused new prosperity with old values, and the era became known as the “beautiful years” (Greene, 9). “Between the worst of times, however, French citizens lived in what we now refer to as the best of times” (Harris, 1). By the late 19th century, as building technology improved new materials such as iron, steel, and reinforced concrete made it possible to design and construct tall, free-standing structures (Greene, 7). Due to the Industrial Revolution that entered England in 1750, iron increased in practical importance and became widely used in the construction of bridges and high rise buildings (Hocker, 128). The most outstanding monument to the Iron Age was the construction of the Eiffel Tower by Gustave Eiffel (1832-1923) for the Paris Exposition of 1889. The Eiffel Tower was a controversial structure that used new engineering techniques and materials developed during the first century of the Industrial Revolution. Although the Eiffel Tower was cloaked in controversy during its construction, today it not only exemplifies a monumental symbol of Paris, but also continues to be a functional work of art.

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The Industrial Revolution played an important role in the French engineer Alexandre Gustave Eiffel’s (1832-1923) career. Eiffel gained his reputation as an engineer when he assembled bridges over major waterways across the world. (Navailles, 39). These bridges allowed for easier and faster transportation and trade across the nation. Eiffel discovered that the use of wrought iron in his construction of bridges provided flexibility to withstand high winds (Rubin, 16). Some of these bridges that were built in late 1860s are still being used today. Gustave also designed the interior structural elements of the Statue of Liberty (Harris, 1975, 50). This statue is a monumental symbol that represents the freedom in the United States and the friendship between the United States and France. In 1887, Eiffel assisted French entrepreneurs to construct a Panama Canal (Harris, 79) . Eiffel was in charge of constructing and designing the locks within the canal. The Panama Canal Project experienced a financial loss and Eiffel’s reputation suffered a severe setback (Jacobus, 18). In 1885, Gustave Eiffel submitted a plan for a 983 foot tower to the French Exposition Committee to be included in the Paris Exposition of 1889 (Jacobus, 18). Eiffel’s cleverness and brilliance allowed him to design and build some of the world’s most famous structures.

The City of Paris wanted to find ways to celebrate French history, culture, progress, and power (Greene, 2004, 10). The government of Paris wanted to celebrate the centennial of the French Revolution of 1789 by holding an extravagant industrial exposition (Greene, 2004, 10). This World Fair would showcase the great advances the French had made in technology and engineering. On November 8, 1884, French president Jules Grѐvey proclaimed that a “Universal Exposition of Products of Industry” would open in Paris on May 5, 1889 and end on October 31, 1889 (Greene, 2004, 11). The committee hoped to make this event so appealing that people from all over the world would attend to see France’s latest technological and engineering accomplishments. Unfortunately, other nation refused the invitation to celebrate the French Revolution (Greene, 12).

The Parisian government provided the Exposition Committee with a budget of $8.6 million to construct a memorable central attraction at the Paris Exposition of 1889 (Greene, 13). Edouard Lockroy, the minister of commerce and industry, proposed the idea to construct a 1,000 foot tower as the central focus of the exhibition (Harris, 1975, 8). The government then published a notice on May 2, 1886, in the Journal Officiel, French architects and engineers interested in constructing the fair’s semi-permanent buildings and other attractions were invited to “study the possibility of erecting on the Champ de Mars an iron tower with a base of 125 squared meters and 300 meter high (986 feet)” (Harris, 1975, 11). The use of iron allowed large structures to be built fast and then dismantled once the exhibition was over (Navailles, 1989). The committee decided to hold a competition to select the best design for the fair. The committee received over 100 blueprints to construct a 1,000 foot high tower, though none had been successful.

By June 12, 1886, Lockroy and the Exposition Committee awarded Gustave Eiffel as the designer of the largest tower ever constructed (Greene, 14). His winning design consisted of an iron tower that would stand nearly 1,000 feet high and weigh 7000 tons (Greene, 14). His estimated cost of construction totaled at $1.6 million (Harris, 15). Before making a final selection, the committee had to carefully examine whether Eiffel’s design could, indeed, be constructed at Champ de Mars, a residential neighborhood in central Paris (Greene, 15). The Exposition Committee was impressed by Gustave Eiffel’s plan to use metal and iron to build the tower. They could not resist the possibilities this tower presented not only to the fair but to the city of Paris, as well (Greene, 16).

Eiffel’s project had been designed since 1884. He had help from two structural engineers at his company, Eiffel and Company, Maurice Koechlin and Emile Nouguier, who patented the design for a 300 meter high tower (Parkyn, 2002, 175). Their concept included four separate columns at the base, which will become joined at the top (Navailles, 1989). Gustave bought the patent from Koechlin and assembled a team including architect, Stephen Sauvestre to alter the current design (Parkyn, 175). Sauvestre’s greatest contribution to the project was his use of decorative arches to link the columns and the first level.

On January 8, 1887 Edouard Lockroy and the City of Paris signed a contract with Gustave Eiffel outlining the methods for financing the construction and the conditions for operating the tower when completed (Greene, 19). The contract stated that the 1,000 foot tower must be completed by the time the exposition opened in May 1889 (Greene, 19). Eiffel had two and a half years to construct the world’s tallest structure (Parkyn, 175). The French government covered less than one-fifth of the tower’s construction cost, Eiffel was responsible for the remaining amount (Harris, 18). To raise the rest of the money, Eiffel formed his own company becoming part owner of the tower that would bear his name (Greene, 19). The conditions of the agreement stated that Eiffel can receive any income that came from the tower during the exposition (Greene, 20). At the end of the exhibition, the tower would become property of the City of Paris, but Eiffel would continue to receive revenue from the tower for the next 20 years (Parkyn, 176).

Eiffel began digging the foundation for the tower on January 26 (Rubin, 2001, 17). He took all the necessary precautions in constructing this monstrous tower. He was a careful planner and studied the effects of wind and the soil of the location of the tower. Eiffel stated in an interview with the French newspaper Le Temps that his greatest challenge in constructing the tower was its resistance to wind (Rubin, 2001, 16). Eiffel assembled a team consisting of 250 men contracted by Eiffel and Company (Harris, 66). After studying the soil of Champ de Mars, Eiffel concluded that his structure must have a solid foundation to prevent sinking, leaning, or worst, falling over. He and his workers constructed a foundation of cement and limestone underneath all four piers consisting of hydraulic jacks for adjusting the columns to ensure balance of the tower (Harris, 60).

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Another innovation that helped Eiffel construct his design in such a short amount of time was his use of prefabricated structures. Eiffel had more than 18,000 structural pieces manufactured in workshops, which was then shipped to the construction site (Parkyn, 176). Eiffel’s workers used steam-powered cranes to help carry the construction materials from the ground to the platforms where workers riveted the structures into place (Greene, 28). The cranes could be moved up the tower as building progressed. Safety was also an important factor as well as speed. To meet his deadline, Eiffel had to enforce strict rules for his workers. Eiffel paid his workers really well because of the dangers experienced on the job. He solved disputes and drinking on the job by firing the offenders (Parkyn, 177). There was only one death that occurred during the construction of the tower, when a young worker was trying to impress his girlfriend and he fell from the first floor (Greene, 40).

By using innovative engineering methods and working his crew longer and harder, Eiffel not only met his deadline to complete the 300 meter tower but also kept construction cost under budget (Greene, 40). On March 31, 1889 the tower was inaugurated and opened to tourists on May 6 (Thompson, 2000, 1131). During its first year in the Paris Exposition of 1889, the tower attracted over two million tourists from all over the world (Jacobus, 18). The tower offered visitors to dine in four restaurants located on the first and second platforms, a museum and souvenir shop, and an observation deck located on the third level. For people to enjoy visiting and working in the tower, a safe and efficient elevator system was installed connecting all three floors (Greene, 36). Visitors waited in line, as they still do today, for a chance to climb it, ride to the top in elevators, eat lunch or dinner there, and buy souvenirs (Rubin, 20). The stairways, elevators, viewing platforms, and restaurants offered people from all walks of life into contact with each other (Levin, 1989, 1061).

Many opposed the construction of the Eiffel Tower and many initially thought it was nothing but a useless eyesore. Many citizens were shocked and amazed when Eiffel and his workers began construction on the tower. They were astonished that such a design was even being attempted. Among its critics, forty-seven artists, writers, composer, and cultural leaders sent an angry letter to the Paris minister complaining of its “monstrosity and uselessness” (Rubin, 15). Many residents of Champ de Mars thought that the “metal monster” would surely fall on their homes and crush them (Rubin, 17). One nervous citizen even filed suit against the City of Paris to stop the construction of the tower (Rubin, 17). Work came to a halt, until Eiffel assured nearby residents and the City of Paris that he would accept full responsibility for any accidents that may occur during construction (Harris, 69). One French math professor figured out that if the tower ever reached the height of 748 feet it would definitely fall (Rubin, 17). Many nearby residents also thought that the tower would interfere with nature and weather conditions. During these times, people did not understand lightning and electricity very well. Some feared that burying the conduits from the tower’s lightning rods in the bed of the Seine would kill the fish (Harris, 69). Many nature lovers thought the tower would interfere with the flight of birds over Paris (Rubin, 17). People also worried that the soft, sandy, clay soil of Champ de Mars would not be able to withstand the weight of this giant tower and that it would surely sink (Rubin, 17). Parisians in awe and horror gathered to watch Eiffel and his men construct this massive tower. The thought the tower looked like “a hulking metal beast crouched on all fours” (Rubin, 18).

Today the Eiffel Tower not only exemplifies a monumental symbol of Paris, but also continues to be a functional work of art. After Eiffel’s retirement shortly after completing the tower, he researched new ideas through practical use of the tower. The tower enabled him to make advancements in aerodynamics, meteorology, and radio-broadcasting. He built a wind tunnel at the base of the tower to enable his studies of aerodynamics (Parkyn, 178). Eiffel also installed thermometers, barometers, and other weather equipment on the third level of the tower in cooperation with France’s Central Weather Bureau (Harris, 161). For the first time, French scientist could gather weather conditions at a thousand-foot altitude. Eiffel then focused his studies on radio transmission. Around the time radio was becoming popular in early 20th century, a transmitter was placed on top of the tower (Rubin, 21). Radio transmission was a success, and by 1909 the tower served as a communications post during World War I (Parkyn, 178). “After the war, news programs and then concerts were broadcast from the tower” (Rubin, 21). In 1934, Paris’s first television transmitter was placed on the tower, adding to its height and giving it a grand total of 1,052 feet (Rubin, 21). The tower continues to serve as a permanent radio tower and is currently used for television and radio broadcasting (Parkyn, 178).


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