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The Tower of Babel: Gustave Eiffel and the creation of modernity

The Eiffel tower started as a fantasy project of two of Gustave Eiffel's engineers, Maurice Koechlin and Emile Nougier. It was an idea for the highest building of its time, built like the iron railway bridges Eiffel’s firm had constructed before. It is a bridge turned vertical – or rather two bridges, turned vertical and leaning against each other - with the sole purpose to show what is possible. 

Gustave Eiffel was a man at the forefront of the early industrial economy, a builder of railway bridges. The railway, being the first technology-driven infrastructure boosting the new industrial economy, was not without reason called its “crowning achievement” by Marx.

When Eiffel began to promote the tower project, he already had a highly successful career behind him. His company was global, having planned bridges in Indochina and Portugal, the railway station in Pest, Hungary and the interior construction of the statue of liberty in New York. Out of his factory in Levallois-Perret, he sold his bridges in modular, pre-constructed kits to be ordered from catalogues worldwide. 

Eiffel saw his chance when the planned exhibition to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the French Revolution in Paris was confirmed; When an architecture contest for a landmark was carried out in 1886, his tower was already planned out in detail. Despite a government grant of 1,5 million Francs, he financed the tower, whose building costs are estimated at 6,5 million francs, entirely by himself.

The first drawing by Koechlin and Nougier reveals their phantasmagorical intention: A tower as high as the Notre Dame, the statue of liberty, the arc de triomphe, three obelisks and a 5-storey apartment building stacked up, altogether 1000 feet high. It was the tallest building of the world until the 1930´s. 

Koechlin and Nougier contacted Stephen Sauvestre, an architect, to embellish their project. Sauvestre proposed several modifications, among them the arches which would connect the base with the first level of the tower. Nevertheless, the bridge-turned-upside outraged his contemporaries. While nobody was objecting against Eiffel´s bridges, the fact that he was building a tower in Paris horrified the Parisian art and architecture establishment. With the tower, Eiffel left the context of the “utilitarian” which contained his bridges in a territory outside- and below- the area of “art” claimed by the architects of his time. He was intruding in architectural territory with a naked, technical construction, higher than anything else in Paris or the rest of the world.  

Signed by Charles Gounod, Guy de Maupassant, Alexandre Dumas, Charles Garnier and many others, Le Temps publishes a “Protest against the tower of Monsieur Eiffel”: We come, we writers, painters, sculptors, architects, passionate lovers of the -up to now- intact beauty of Paris, to protest with all our strength and all our indignation, in the name of the underestimated taste of the French, in the name of the threatened French art and history, against the erection, in the very heart of our capital, of the useless and monstrous Eiffel Tower, which the malignancy of the public, often imprinted with a good sense and the spirit for justice, has already baptized with the name “Tower of Babel”.

It is quite remarkable that the Parisian art elite went so far as to take the opinion of the 'ignorant' public as an argument for its own ends. Eiffel replies in Le Temps: Don’t the genuine conditions of force always conform to the secret rules of harmony ? (…) in the colossal, there is an attraction, an own charm, to which ordinary theories of art are only scarcely applicable.

Eiffel, the engineer, claims that there is a law which binds physical force and harmony together; He has constructed the tower to withstand the forces of wind – the wind goes through the tower. For him, beauty is not in a surface, it is in the essence: the tower is the expression of physical force itself. As soon as the tower is finished, public opinion changes overnight. The Eiffel tower becomes an instant sensation.

This railway bridge turned vertical, a monument to the new aesthetics of scientific engineering, is built for a historic cause, yet is the very landmark for the beginning of a new age. The next construction to surpass its height will be entirely for a cause of capital: The Chrysler building in New York, 1048 feet high, finished in 1930. It was the highest building in the world for just one year, until the Empire State building, 1,472 feet high, was completed in 1931.


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