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Bastille Day 2013

The Eiffel Tower

Guy de Maupassant, the prolific, successful short story writer par excellence, was but one of a sizeable number of 19th-century Parisians who hated la tour Eiffel, the Eiffel Tower. He frequently ate lunch in the restaurant at the base of the tower, not because he liked the food (it is more than possible that he did not), but because only in that location could this man avoid the disgusting sight of the profile that seemed to appear in full view everywhere in Paris.

You see, Paris was the home town of these artists. If they chose to use Paris within their art, a product that was subsequently marketed, then the profit from the artistic expression of an individual was one thing. But the crass marketing of Paris as a city, this salesmanship of Gustave Eiffel and his tower, that indecency had to be stopped by the artists of Paris. At the time, Paris was still surrounded by fields and wide open spaces. At the time, la Belle Époque was underway. This stable, prosperous period of peace, from 1871 to 1914, encouraged “la joie de vivre,” the joy of living. So very much within France blossomed and bloomed during that era. The full truth, however, is that la Belle Époque received its name only in retrospect, after the horrors of the Great War.

The French being French, and French artists being French artists, a Committee of Three Hundred was formed to protest the construction of this tower. There was, of course, a direct correlation, Cartesian in fact, drawn between the number of artists in the committee and the number of meters of the height of the tower: 300, or one artist for each meter. (I imagine that if ten more artists had wanted to be included in the committee they would have been turned away for logically aesthetic reasons.)

The heated objections to the construction of this structural abomination were part of the ages-old argument about the uneasy alliance between architecture and engineering. This “debate” continues.

Maupassant was joined by such artistic luminaires as Emile Zola, Alexandre Dumas, Paul Verlaine, Charles Gounod, and Jules Massenet. A petition was sent to (targeted at) the proper government official (bureaucrat): the Minister of Works and Commissioner for the Exposition (the international one of 1889). A copy of the petition was also handed to the newspaper which would best serve the cause of the Committee without causing that newspaper to lose any favor from the French government. In this case, it was Le Temps.

Attached to the petition was a formal letter of protest (the French do protest so well!). Maupassant was joined by forty-six other Parisian notables of the literary and artistic veins. I do not know if the letter served as a warm-up act for the fiery petition worded by these infuriated, indignant, insulted Frenchmen, but the “cover letter” was probably written in the same style of the magnificently offended sensibilities of the artistically magnificent.

The text of this translated, emblematic petition is partial, but mere parts can say so much! In this instance, the use of synecdoche, the part for the whole, is delightfully achieved.

“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, against the erection . . . of this useless and monstrous Eiffel Tower . . .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 Tour Saint-Jacques, the Louvre, the Dome of les Invalides, the Arc de Triomphe, all of our humiliated monuments will disappear in this ghastly dream. And for twenty years . . . we shall see stretching like a blot of ink the hateful shadow of the hateful column of bolted sheet metal.”

Only in France could the inanimate -- a building -- be humiliated! Only could the French, particularly of this era, become enraged at the mere thought of “hitherto untouched beauty” being besmirched (wait until the Nazis roll into Paris). In the name of slighted French taste, I hereby ask, “What in the world is going on today in France?”

Unfortunately, Gustave Eiffel responded to these criticisms by comparing his tower to the Egyptian Pyramids. A caricature of Monsieur Eiffel was promptly created for publication. Eiffel had been selected by the proper officials for the coveted role of designing the tower which, in his mind, became “his” tower. The structure was to be erected as the entrance arch to the 1889 International Exposition. This event was intended to commemorate the centennial of the French Revolution. The itch in the French blood for revolution may have been triggered by Gustave and “his” tower.

In all fairness to Monsieur Eiffel, this brilliant but somewhat naïve civil engineer could not comprehend any objections to “his” creation. The thing was so symbolic! Could not a poet understand the deeper meanings of an engineering feat of nearly epic proportions?! Eiffel had laid the proper foundation for premiering his prized proposed construction project: the design of the tower was displayed at the Exhibition of Decorative Arts in Paris during the autumn of 1884. And on 30 March 1885, Gustave even expounded to the Société des Ingénieurs Civil (Society of Civil Engineers) his report on the tower. He’d first detailed any technical problems and then he stressed the practical uses of the tower.

His lecture ended with starry-eyed thoughts, stating that this structure would symbolize:

" . . . not only the art of the modern engineer, but also the century of Industry and Science in which we are living, and for which the way was prepared by the great scientific movement of the eighteenth century and by the Revolution of 1789, to which this monument will be built as an expression of France's gratitude."

Eiffel may have overplayed his hand regarding the gratitude of the French, but he was getting even more carried away with this design that was not truly his. The original idea for this “exposition tower” was conceived by two engineers at the firm of Eiffel: Maurice Koechlin and Emile Nouguier. More than fifty engineers and designers had labored to prepare approximately 5,300 plans, specifications, and drawings for the tower. The realization of the Eiffel Tower was the result of the same process that occurs during the design and construction of any grand engineering project: the final product is the result of the work of scores of anonymous engineers and technicians who willingly undertake complex problems and solve them, all for the purpose of creating a potential masterpiece or mess.

If the engineering feat proves to be a mess, or failure, then the engineering firm, or house, takes the blame. Such blame is usually shared evenly among the house engineers. If, however, the structure endures and becomes a masterpiece, then the credit, glory, fame, and money will all go to the guy in charge, the engineer whose name has been etched upon the nameplate. This success will, in truth, have many fathers but only one surname.

Gustave Eiffel was inordinately proud of his proposed tower. He crowed like a true Gallic rooster in response to the irate artists and their Committee of Three Hundred:

“My tower will be the tallest edifice ever erected by man. Will it not also be grandiose in its way? And why would something admirable in Egypt become hideous and ridiculous in Paris?"

Eiffel had argued his point capably. Édouard Lockroy, politician and former actor and dramatist, then decided to become a player in this French drama of artists and engineers. He was hardly an objective interloper (he held a cabinet post within this French Ministry of the Third Republic, and he had a position on the Commission for the Tower). Lockroy, however, lobbed a supremely effective rebuttal in his own letter to the French Minister of Works and Commissioner for the Exposition (the official target of the literary ire):

"Judging by the stately swell of the rhythms, the beauty of the metaphors, the elegance of its delicate and precise style, one can tell that . . . this protest is the result of collaboration of the most famous writers and poets of our time.”

The literary analysis was quite good but the judgment of affecting too much style was not going to work in this instance among the French. What worked was the pointing of the finger of certainty about “collaboration,” a word that smelled so odious to any Frenchman that Gustave Eiffel no longer worried about his tower and the Committee of Three Hundred. He nonetheless could not help himself from adding one final poke in the ribs of the artists. He expressed his aesthetic opinion to a journalist, one who would ensure that these words were printed:

“Do not the laws of natural forces always conform to the secret laws of harmony?”

The assumption that Eiffel was using only the laws of natural forces is disputable, but what is indisputable is the fact that la tour Eiffel, the Eiffel Tower has endured to become an international cultural symbol of France. It is perhaps the most recognizable structure in Paris, if not the world.

The Parisians love their city. And make no mistake, Paris is their city. They welcome tourists and have accommodated themselves to the demands of business (English is now spoken by the Parisians who want your business). But the Parisians are not willing participants in the global village. (And they are now far less mocked in Provence because the EU bureaucrats, “the Brussels men,” have replaced the Parisians as favorite objects of ridicule by the people of this region.)

I envision Guy de Maupassant, slowly eating a rather mediocre and thus dismal déjeuner in the restaurant at the base of the tower. He smiles subtly as he writes not so subtly with his pen on a small pad of paper. No touch pad for Guy.

There is a short story somewhere in this “hateful column of bolted sheet metal.” Maupassant knows that this structure is no longer simply the tower of Gustave Eiffel. Oui, there is irony there, perhaps even of the poetic type. The Eiffel Tower presaged the view of France as prize. The Committee of Three Hundred might say that the tower encouraged that view, particularly for the large, industrious, highly populated, power-hungry country to the east of France.

The committee members would be quite justified in saying that the passionate collaboration of 300 Parisian artists in 1888 was far preferable to the non-passionate collaboration of many more Parisians in a later decade. The belief in the wondrous fate of feats of engineering reared its ugly head during this time of peace and prosperity. There was also the astounding idea that man, with enough Industry and Science, can create a well-ordered, perhaps perfect world. And that nation of industrious people in that vast country to the east fully indulged in the same wishful thinking, before that thinking went horribly mad.

Engineers are said to be “above it all.” They perhaps did not detect the French passion for manipulating reality to suit one’s illusion. The engineers of this era, like the artists, believed in a France that could reign supreme because of things like a steel tower and all that this tower symbolized. The engineers and the artists could not foresee the day when France would be brought to her knees because the French believed in their own myths. The problem was not that France was a jewel, coveted by that big bully to the east. The problem was that France, knowing that she was a jewel to be coveted, did little or nothing to protect this jewel from those armed-to-the-hilt bullies and thieves that kicked in the doors to Paris.

It is not surprising to learn that Guy de Maupassant wrote his own epitaph. It offers yet again words of wisdom from this French literary craftsman and artist who died too young:

"I have coveted everything and taken pleasure in nothing."

Gustave Eiffel is remembered now among professional engineers for more than “his” tower. This civil engineer, bridge engineer, architect, and freemason was, at the end of his fascinating and productive career, involved in financial and political (they come hand-in-hand) scandals that occurred during the time that his firm was contracted to design locks for the French attempt at building the Panama Canal. Eiffel, with his reputation sullied, retired from his own firm. He then focused his diligent mind on the research of meteorology and aerodynamics. Those scientific fields were not random or dilettante choices of study: Eiffel had seen but not solved key problems with the effects of wind forces on structures that he engineered.

His findings and subsequent contributions to both fields earned him stature and recognition that are almost equivalent to his significance as a civil engineer. He died at the age of 91 in Paris in 1923, between the wars. His tower survived the Nazis, a feat that even the Committee of Three Hundred might have applauded.