8.6. LES MAGICIENS DU FER: ARMAND MOISANT AND GUSTAVE EIFFEL

Statue of Liberty under construction in Paris, 1883, Génie Civil, 1883. First Image of the structure of the Statue of Liberty reprinted in the American Press, American Architect, September 1883. (Loyrette, Eiffel)

By 1883, the iron construction community in France (remember it had been Henri-Jules Borie who in 1865 had proposed the first design for a skyscraper (his Aérodômes – see Sec. 2.1.), had rebounded from the political and economic turmoil brought on by the Franco-Prussian War and the corresponding Paris Commune. Only the month before the first report of the use of iron columns in the Board of Trade, the September 1883 issue of American Architect had published the first image of the Statue of Liberty under a trial construction in Paris. We last discussed Bartholdi’s great project with its head on display at the 1878 Paris World’s Fair (See Vol. Two, Section 5.6) while its torch had been moved from Philadelphia after the World’s Fair had closed to its intended home, New York, and was re-erected in Madison Square Park, hoping to elicit donations to pay for its base (while the French were giving the statue, America was responsible for paying for and erecting the masonry pedestal). Then the roof seemingly had fallen in with the death of the project’s engineer, Eugène Viollet-le-Duc on September 17, 1879.  This had left Bartholdi in search of an engineer who had the knowledge and experience in the erection of large structures to help him complete the project.  

In Third Republic France in 1880, there were two experts in contemporary iron construction that Bartholdi could turn to: Armand Moisant (see Vol. Two, Sec. 6.10): the engineer for the Bon Marché complex that was still being completed and the Menier Chocolate factory, or Gustave Eiffel:

“Our builders of this age, which is justly styled the age of steel and iron, have so thoroughly learned to take into account of the resistances of these metals, that in very truth there seems no conception, however, grandiose it may be, before which they recoil…

“For a long time Americans have held the first rank in these bold experiments, which characterize the studies of that genius which pleases itself in pushing to its extremest limit the resistance of metals’ but rivalry has sprung up… It is thus that we have seen valleys, which had formerly been reputed inbridgeable, crossed by a single elegant arch, as in the case of the Duoro and Garabit bridges.  It is thus that we stood wonder-struck before the gigantic iron skeleton of the statue of Liberty Enlightening the World, offered by France to the United States, which surpasses in dimensions the famous colossi of antiquity.

While Viollet-le-duc had gained his knowledge in the restoration of medieval stone structures, both Moisant and Eiffel had learned how to build in iron first by erecting, and then by designing structures for railroads.  Whereas Moisant had gone on to become the leading fabricator of iron structures in France, his expertise centered around longspan, horizontal roofs, Eiffel had made a reputation in precisely calculated and fabricated, lightweight iron structures, that could be shipped anywhere in the world.  In addition to this expertise, Eiffel had built a number of vertical towers to support his bridges, which, more than likely, recommended him to Bartholdi’s project.  As such, the Statue of Liberty, with the change of its engineer during its design, would represent a benchmark in the history of construction, and, as we will see, also in architecture.  The generation who had grown up with masonry structures and had experimented with iron construction was handing the torch (literally) to the next generation who had grown up with iron structures.

Jules Saulnier and Armand Moisant, Menier Chocolate Factory, Noisel, 1869. A five-story building framed only in iron. (web)

Gustave Eiffel had graduated from the École Centrale des Arts et Manufactures in 1855 (a year before Jenney had graduated in Civil Engineering) with a degree in Chemistry (four years before Moisant had graduated in Civil Engineering), but soon discovered his true talents lay in the area of construction and structural engineering.  After receiving his diploma, he had worked his way up designing iron bridges for railroads and managing their construction.  In many ways, his talents and interests were focused more on construction, or what in America is known as contracting, rather than on the actual engineering of a structure.  In late 1866, paralleling Moisant’s efforts almost exactly, he was ready to strike out on his own, and borrowed the money to buy his own fabricating workshop in Paris, to allow him to offer a complete bid package of engineering design and contracting services.  On December 4, he began to advertise as “Gustave Eiffel, builder…[of] iron constructions, market halls… and in general all metal constructions.” Two years later, he formed G. Eiffel et Compagnie, a partnership with a young German graduate of École Centrale, Théophile Seyrig.  

Seyrig was a very gifted engineer, who freed Eiffel to concentrate on the construction and business side of the company, which Seyrig, being somewhat wealthy, had also helped to initially capitalize with an investment of 126,000 francs.  For the next ten years, Eiffel built up the business and his reputation of being an engineer known for the precise fabrication of iron structures and constructing a project on time and on budget.  During the economic downturn following the Commune, he had continued to hone his skills with foreign contracts.  There are two significant projects of his (both were mentioned in the above quote) prior to the Statue of Liberty that we need to review in order to appreciate who this engineer had become at the time Bartholdi approached him for his assistance.

8.7. THE DUORO AND GARABIT RAILROAD BRIDGES

Gustave Eiffel, Maria Pia Bridge over the River Duoro, Oporto, Portugal, 1875. Note the tapered vertical pylons. (Loyrette, Eiffel)

As we have seen so often in the nineteenth century, the railroad would also play a major role in the development of Eiffel’s reputation.  In early 1875, the Portuguese National Railroad Company advertised a competition for the design of an arched railroad bridge over the gorge of the River Douro at Oporto, Portugal.  The competition program required a clear span over the river of 525’ at the height of some 203’ above the river.  The arched span would be longer than the current record of 520’, held by the Eads Bridge over the Mississippi River at St. Louis, designed and fabricated by local engineer James B. Eads, that had been completely only the year before.  Eiffel’s design and bid was chosen as it was significantly less expensive than the other three finalists.  The design called for the railroad trestle to be supported over the river by a two-hinged arch and by intermediate iron piers on the slope from the river’s shore to the top of the gorge.  While the form of the arch is the more interesting of the two types of supports as it varies in width and depth directly in response to the loads it resists, it is the iron piers that are central to this study.  The tallest pier was 135′ tall, and Eiffel had also determined its profile strictly through an analysis of the loads to which it would be subjected.  Construction began in January 1876 and was completed on October 31, 1877.  It would be Seyrig, however, the more theoretical of the two partners, who would use the completed structure to throw the gauntlet down at the aesthetic traditionalists within France’s architectural community (many of which had been supporters of Louis-Napoleon’s Second Empire), by stating in his final report that the bridge’s true significance was aesthetic, and not just structural.  He stressed that the beauty of the final design had made no “architectural concessions of traditional ornamental beauty” (there was no traditional decoration placed on the bridge) but was completely due to the art of the “innovative” engineer:

“The arch form has always been considered the most elegant…Its construction, using a small number of large elements, gives the impression of robustness and power, while the whole retains the lightness imparted to it by the use of metal.”

The mounting intrusion of science (technology and industry) into the traditional realm of the architect would only generate an increased reactionary resistance among the French architectural community to the use of exposed iron in Paris’ buildings during the Third Republic.

The success of the Douro Bridge so impressed the French company that operated the railroads in the Massif Central region, that when it began projecting a line that would have to cross the deep gorge of the River Truyère at Garabit, it suspended the usual contracting procedures and instead of requesting bids, simply opened direct discussions with Eiffel:

“because only Monsieur Eiffel has constructed a similar work, and only he has the experience of the new assembly methods of which he is in large part the inventor, and for which he also has the equipment which was used to erect the bridge over the Douro… It would in any case be unjust to entrust the work to any other than Monsieur Eiffel, since it is his Douro bridge which gave the Engineers the idea of crossing the Truyère valley with a new route.

Eiffel proposed a design very similar to his Duoro Bridge.  The gorge of the River Truyère was over 400′ deep, which meant that the new structure was going to have to be twice as tall as was the Portuguese bridge.  Eiffel began to show his ego in being able to build larger structures than had ever been built in a rendering the company did for publicity:

“To give an idea of this height of 122 meters, we need only say that it is considerably greater than that of the towers of Notre-Dame and the column in the Place Vendôme one on top of the other.

Gustave Eiffel, Garabit Viaduct, 1879. Note his drawing of Notre-Dame with the Vendôme column perched on top for comparison. (Loyrete, Eiffel)

After Eiffel had signed the contract on June 14, 1879, he broke his contract with Seyrig, his partner and primary engineer, over a dispute about how much credit in public each of them should get for the company’s unique solutions.  Eiffel replaced Seyrig with a young, Alsatian engineer, Maurice Koechlin, who became the lead design engineer for the bridge.  Because of the greater height of the project, the main arch’s span grew to 607’, and the tallest iron pier  topped off at a height of 200.’  Site work began in January 1880, iron erection commenced in August 1882, and was completed in late 1884.

Eiffel, Garabit Viaduct under construction. (Loyrete, Eiffel)

FURTHER READING:

Loyrette, Henri. Gustave Eiffel. New York: Rizzoli, 1985.

(If you have any questions or suggestions, please feel free to eMail me at: thearchitectureprofessor@gmail.com)

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