On June 6, 1884, Eiffel’s engineers, Emile Nougier and Maurice Koechlin produced their first drawing of their ideas. Koechlin described their design as “four lattice girders standing apart at the base and coming together at the top, joined to one another by metal trusses at regular intervals.” Similar to the Garrabit publicity drawing, the tallest buildings in Paris (that at this time included the Statue of Liberty!) were stacked one on top of another to give the viewer an idea of the magnitude of the tower’s vertical scale. They approached Eiffel with their idea, who seemed indifferent but gave his blessing to them to continue, but more than likely at this moment was still very much focused on the completion of the Garrabit Bridge. The two engineers brought in architect Stephen Sauvestre, director of the company’s architectural department, for his assistance in making the engineered idea into an aesthetically acceptable monument, who added the decorative fake aches at the base, usable spaces at each of the three levels, and the requisite Beaux-Arts sprinkling of gratuitous monumental sculptures.
A drawing of this design was exhibited at the Decorative Arts Exhibition that autumn (1884) at the Palais de l’Industrie. Around this time, the Garrabit Bridge was completed that allowed Eiffel to switch his attention from the bridge to the tower project, that by now was gaining traction within some circles. By September, the three were ready to patent their design with the wise inclusion of their boss, that was submitted on September 18, 1884. The Washington Monument was completed on December 6, and only six days later on December 12, Eiffel signed an agreement with his three employees to buy their patent rights and became the sole holder of the patent. The very next day, December 13, only one week following the completion of the Washington Monument, le Genie Civil proudly published Sauvestre’s drawing.
Having claimed the record for the longest arch span from the Americans with the Douro and Garrabit bridges, Gustave Eiffel had now set his sights on the just completed Washington Monument:
“Without rebuilding the Tower of Babel, one can see that the idea of constructing a tower of very great height has for a long time haunted the imagination of mankind. This kind of victory over the terrible law of gravity which attaches man to the ground always appeared to him a symbol of the forces and the difficulties to be overcome. To speak only of our century, the thousand-feet tower which would exceed by twice the highest monuments it had been possible to hitherto construct [Washington Monument], was a problem set down to be solved in the minds of English [Trevithick, 1832 and Charles Burton, 1852] and American [Philadelphia Phoenix Tower, 1874] engineers.”
In all reality, the Eiffel engineers were also reacting to a proposal made the previous year by architect Jules Bourdais, who had also graduated from the École Centrale des Arts et Manufactures only two years after Eiffel, to erect a 300m masonry lighthouse in Paris. The idea, a “Tour Soleil,” had been originally proposed by Amédée Sébillot, a young electrical engineer after he had made a trip to the U.S. in 1881, at which time the construction of the Washington Monument had been restarted. He proposed to combine 100 electric lamps with parabolic reflectors into a 165′ high electric beacon that would sit atop the tower. Its purpose was obvious, to use technology to overcome the limitations of the night by providing more light than was needed to read a newspaper within a radius several miles from the tower. (Elmer Sperry would succeed in building just such a lamp in Chicago with the Board of Trade’s corona in late 1885.) Bourdais, an arch-traditionalist architect who was best known for his work on the Trocadero Palace with Gabriel Davioud in 1876, had adopted the idea and applied it to a masonry tower that was to rise from a 217′ high granite base. The tower that ultimately would have supported the metal beacon consisted of five masonry drums, decreasing in diameter as the tower rose. The masonry tower was to be covered with embossed copper sheets and surrounded with an arcaded screen that tapered with the reduction in diameter of the drums and supported galleries at each stepback in the tower. Bourdais’ design was an example to the Americans who were in the process of completing the Washington Monument of how to design an “architecturally correct” monument.
Even though Bourdais had sheathed his masonry tower in copper, once Eiffel’s competing design was published in le Genie Civil, Bourdais began to lash out at Eiffel’s “vulgar” use of exposed iron. Thus began the next battle in France’s ongoing Querelle des Anciens et des Modernes (the Quarrel of the Ancients and Moderns) that I had first discussed in Vol. 2, Sec. 1.7 with its start in 1687. In this latest debate to win the hearts and minds of Parisians, the issue was the merits of “traditional” architecture in stone versus “innovative” or modern scientifically-based buildings that actually revealed their industrially-produced metal structure. Eiffel attacked the feasibility of constructing a stone edifice to the height projected by Bourdais from five important, fundamental issues: the ability of stone and its mortar to resist the magnitude of the weight of the tower, Bourdais’s lack of understanding of the actual wind forces on such a tower, Bourdais’ seemingly cavalier attitude towards a foundation for such a massive weight (there was none, it was to simply sit of the ground), the actual cost of such a structure, and finally, the time required to construct such a monumental tower in masonry. Bourdais’ offhanded, third-person response was meant to end all discussion:
“As regards stability, and, more particularly, with respect to wind resistance, Monsieur Bourdais used a formula which he says he has tested in practice more than once, and whose results, according to him, agree with dimensions used in the tallest buildings in the world. We shall accept his results without questioning them… the dimensions of the tower give no ground for fear, since the height of the tower does not exceed the maximum height permitted by theory…Thus there is no cause for anxiety here.”
Bourdais was clearly out of his league with such a structure, but his ego could not admit this fact. Eiffel was quick to prove the point:
“It goes without saying that iron will never entirely replace stone and wood…but in recent years there has been a constant battle, and iron increasingly invaded the field of major construction, and today it is one of the principal materials. What are the advantages of metal? Primarily, its elasticity [strength]. From the point of view of the loads which one can safely support with one or other of the materials we know, for equal area, iron is ten times more elastic than wood and twenty times more elastic than stone. It is in large constructions especially that metal elasticity reveals its superiority over other materials. The actual weight of the work plays a considerable role; it limits the height and distance which one can reach. At the same time, the relative lightness of steel constructions makes it possible to decrease the importance of supports and foundations.”
3.10. SHOULD THERE EVEN BE A FAIR TO CELEBRATE 1789?
Eiffel and Bourdais continued to promote their designs and to throw barbs at their opponent’s design throughout 1885, but in truth, there was no real consensus over whether there should even be a fair in 1889 to celebrate the centennial of the 1789 revolution. After all, there was no consensus among the general French population about what was the best form of national government: communist, republican, imperial, or monarchy. They had tried them all at one time or another during the past 100 years, and all four were still very much in play in 1885, for not every Frenchmen viewed either the Revolution or the Second Empire as a positive event. To the benefit of Eiffel’s long-term reputation, the general election of 1885 in the fall would return the incumbent Republican government to office that finally settled the issue. The celebration of the revolution’s centennial was assured, and it would need an iconic, central point of interest. Eiffel had been very active in promoting his design during the intervening year, and at least among the Republican ministers who were going to be in charge of the fair, his design was unanimously viewed as being the most symbolic of the progressive political ideas of the revolution they wished to promote through the fair. As usual, no one was more articulate about the political symbolism of his design, than Eiffel himself:
“The tower would seem to be worthy of personifying the art of the modern engineer and the century and science, for which the road was prepared by the Revolution of 1789, to which this monument will be erected as testimony of the gratitude of France.”
The effectiveness of Eiffel’s campaign was such that the Minister of Trade, Édouard Lockroy formally announced on May 1, 1886, that the period for proposing designs, which had been ongoing since the first official prospectus on the fair was issued in March 1885, would end on May 18 and that all designs:
“must investigate the possibility of erecting a square-based iron tower, 125 meters square at the base and 300 meters high, on the Champ de Mars. They must draw out this tower on the plan of the Champ de Mars, and if they deem it fitting, they may submit another plan without the said tower.”
The architectural and political conservatives, led by Paul Planat and his magazine La construction moderne, attempted to derail Eiffel’s design that same day with an editorial that denounced it as “an inartistic…scaffolding of crossbars and angled iron.” Only a few hours later, across the Atlantic, over 350,000 workers began a general strike in support of the eight-hour workday in the U.S. Four days later, a bomb was thrown into a group of Chicago policemen in the Haymarket Square. While American business leaders reacted with overwhelming force to thwart America’s labor reformers from achieving their goal in the summer of 1886, the French Republicans, who had first overthrown Napoléon III’s Second Empire, and then had to defeat the Paris Commune, were still in control of the national government and would succeed in fighting off the efforts of Second Empire reactionaries to stifle the ultimate expression of the centennial of their revolution in the modern form of Eiffel’s iron tower.
Suspicions were aroused by the unreasonably short period of only eighteen days allowed to design, refine, and render a plan for what would be the tallest structure ever constructed, but still, over one hundred submissions were recorded by the deadline. On May 12 a committee was formed, chaired by Lockroy and Jean-Charles Adolphe Alphand, Paris’ Director of Works, to review the designs. It identified a list of nine semi-finalists, that included Bourdais’ (who had to obviously revise his masonry design using iron) and Eiffel’s designs, and after much discussion and review by the Republican committee, on June 12, 1886, it announced:
“the tower built for the 1889 Universal Exhibition should clearly have a distinctive character, and should be an original masterpiece of work in metal, and that only the Eiffel Tower seemed to satisfy these requirements fully.”
The Modernes had won this round of the Querelle des Anciens et des Modernes … Vive la République!
Larson, Gerald R., “The Iron Skeleton Frame: Interactions Between Europe and the United States,” in Zukowsky, John, Chicago Architecture: 1872-1922, Chicago: The Art Institute of Chicago, 1987.
Loyrette, Henri. Gustave Eiffel. New York: Rizzoli, 1985.
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