3.11. EIFFEL BEGINS CONSTRUCTION

Stephan Sauvestre, Early Design for the 300-M Tower. The two side towers contained the elevators to the tower, so that the center was left open from the ground. Fortunately, Eiffel decided the elevators should follow the curve of the legs, a technology never tried before. Fortunately, Otis Elevators were able to solve the problem. (Online)

It still took seven more months for the government and Eiffel to sign a contract on January 8, 1887.  The primary issue that took so much time in negotiating was the financing of the project.  The government was adamant about limiting its financial exposure in the project to 1,500,000 francs, and having no financial liability whatsoever (the final cost of the tower was 7,800,000 francs).  Eiffel eventually had to stake not only his reputation, but his personal financial stability by agreeing to accept sole responsibility for financing the entire project, less the government subsidy.  In return for doing so, he asked for and was granted the concession for all receipts generated by the tower (including the sale of all images of the tower!) for the next twenty years.  In typical fashion, Eiffel had the self-confidence to form a stock company to finance the project, offering 10,000 shares at 500 francs each.  Having calculated the expected return based on attendance estimates, he would keep half of the shares for himself.  He recovered his entire costs within the first year, and the following years’ profits would make him truly financially independent.

3.12. THE SECOND EMPIRE STRIKES BACK… AND FAILS

Excavation Begins, January 1887. (Online)

Once he had a signed contract, Eiffel wasted no time and began clearing the Champ de Mars and excavating for the tower’s foundations on January 28. (Four days after Adler started clearing the site for the Auditorium.)  The traditionalists at the École des Beaux-Arts, however, would not go down without at least one last-ditch attack on the metal symbol of the Republican future.  They had defeated Viollet-le-Duc when he had been appointed by Napoléon III to the École, it was time to do the same to the upstart, distasteful engineer.  Paul Planat, publisher of the conservative magazine La construction modern, hosted a dinner on December 18, 1886, for the leading alumni of the École, where champagne flowed while a variety of sarcastic skits and cynical songs roasted Eiffel and his “funnel planted on its fat butt.”  Charles Garnier, the architect of the imperial Paris Opera, who had also coined the term, “Second Empire,” to describe its imperial style, would be at the forefront of the reactionary attack on Eiffel.  A committee of 300 (one for every meter) leading artists and intellectuals who were vehemently opposed to the construction of the metal tower was formed to register their protest.  On February 14, 1887, Le Temps printed an open letter now known as the “Artists’ Protest,” to Jean-Charles Adolphe Alphand, Paris’ Director of Works, stating the reasons for their opposition:

“…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, in the name of the threatened art and history of France, against the erection, right at the heart of our capital, of the useless and monstrous Eiffel Tower, which the caustic public, often endowed with good sense and judgment, has already dubbed the “Tower of Babel.”… Without falling into an excess of chauvinism, we have the right to proclaim aloud that Paris is a city without rival in the world…

“Are we then going to allow all this to be profaned?  Is the city of Paris then going to associate herself with the grotesque, mercenary inventions of a machine builder, so as to deface and deflower her?… when foreigners come to see our exhibition, they will cry out in astonishment, “What!  This is the atrocity which the French have created to give us an idea of their boasted taste!”  And they will be right to laugh at us because the Paris of sublime Gothic, the Paris of Jean Goujon,… will have become the Paris of Monsieur Eiffel.

“To bring our arguments home, imagine for a moment a giddy, ridiculous tower dominating Paris like a gigantic black smokestack, crushing under its barbaric bulk Notre-Dame, the Sainte Chapelle, the Tour Saint-Jacques, the Louvre, the dome of the Invalides, the Arc de Triomphe; all our humiliated monuments, all our dwarfed buildings will disappear in this ghastly dream.  And for twenty years, over the whole city which still trembles with the genius of so many centuries, we shall see stretching out like a blot of ink the hateful shadow of the hateful column of bolted sheet metal.”

Construction of the Foundation for One of the Legs, April 1887. (Online)

The protest was signed by 47 of Paris’ outraged leading citizens, including architects Charles Garnier and Joseph Auguste Émile Vaudremer, composer Charles Gounod, artist Ernest Meissonier, poet Francois Coppée and writers, Alexandre Dumas, Guy de Maupassant, and Sully Prudhomme.  Not surprising, missing from the list were the names of all of the well-established Impressionist painters in Paris (Monet, Renoir, Degas, and Pissarro) that were all fighting the same ongoing Querelle des Anciens et des Modernes during this period for their own medium.  In fact, Georges Seurat would use the tower as the subject of a painting he did in the year before the Fair opened. 

Georges Seurat, The Eiffel Tower, 1888. (The Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco)

Having a contract in hand, as well as already having started construction, Eiffel could afford to be controlled and rather understated in his replies to these onerous, desperate criticisms of his design and his abilities:

“I believe that the Tower will have its own beauty.  Because we are engineers, do people think that we do not care about the beauty of our constructions and that as well as making them strong and durable, we do not try to make them elegant?…

“Do not the laws of natural forces always conform to the secret laws of harmony?   The first principle of the aesthetics of architecture is that the essential lines of a monument should be determined by their perfect appropriateness to their end.  Now, what condition do I have to take into consideration above all others in a tower?  Wind resistance.  Well I maintain that the curves of the four arrises of the monument, as the calculations have determined them, will give an impression of beauty because they will demonstrate to the viewer the boldness of the conception.”

Eiffel had simply repeated the argument in favor of a modern aesthetic whose lineage reached back to the French theoretician, Marc Antoine Laugier, who had written in his 1753 treatise, Essai sur l’architecture, that architectural beauty comes not from the man-made precedents of the past, but from the processes of Nature.  Perhaps, however, the argument was best made by Jules Simon, the Minister of Fine Arts who wrote in the official guide for the Eiffel Tower:  

“This masterpiece of the builder’s art comes at its appointed hour, on the threshold of the twentieth century, to symbolize the age of iron we are entering.  From the second platform, and, above all from the upper-most, a panorama unfolds such as never been seen by human eyes…Nature and history are unrolled side by side in their most powerful guise.  It is on the plain, stretched out beneath your feet, that the past comes to an end.  It is here that the future will be fulfilled.”

Indeed, Garnier and his co-signers were rooted in the aesthetics, as well as the politics of the imperial past; time and technology had already left the protestors’ ideas in their dust. The Republican government had ideas different from theirs; construction of the iron tower would continue unabated with its blessing. Vive la République!

Completion of the First Level, March 26, 1888. (Online)

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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