Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Paris Monuments - The Eiffel Tower

My Lucky-one-and-only (Loo) attends school in the shadows of the Eiffel Tower. That means we get to see it almost every day. We never tire of looking at Eiffel's Iron Lady. From up close or from afar, her graceful majesty never ceases to impress; she always looks dramatic and new, depending on the time of day or weather. It's hard to believe that at the time of construction, many prominent Parisians rose up in protest against the famous Tour Eiffel.

As the 19th century drew to a close, France’s industrial revolution was in full swing. Many new inventions had revolutionized life: the telephone, the car, vaccines against major diseases. The era was variously called “the spring of technology” or La Belle Epoque. To mark the centennial of the 1789 French Revolution, France invited the world to Paris to take part in the 1889 Universal Exhibition, her second World’s Fair. The architect and structural engineer, Gustav Eiffel, unanimously won the contest to build a metal tower at the mouth of the Champs de Mars, the site of the future event. Eiffel’s Tower, "the A over the Champs", would symbolize France’s prominence in a world undergoing rapid industrial modernization and change.

Work on the Tower foundations began in January 1887. It took five months for workers using nothing more than spades to clear the rubble then carted away by horses. The pillars on the park side were easy to stabilize, but the pillars along the Seine required air-compressed foundations using corrugated steel caissons buried five meters under the water.

All 18,038 parts of the tower were built offsite by 300 steelworkers and brought to the Champs de Mars to be locked into place with 2,500,000 rivets. The Tower went up like a giant Erector Set over the course of two years and remarkably, thanks to precautions taken by Eiffel, only one person lost his life on the work-site. When completed, the structure weighed approximately 10,000 tons. Its exponential curves were determined by Eiffel’s understanding of wind resistance. The top can sway up to 12 cms in a high wind.

Eiffel inaugurated his Tower on March 31, 1889, climbing its 1,710 steps to plant the French flag at the peak. It measured 312 meters in height and was the tallest building in the world until 1929, when New York’s Chrysler Building surpassed it by 7 meters. (The current height of the Eiffel Tower is 325 meters, if you include the tallest antenna.)

Even at the time of the 1889 World’s Fair, Eiffel equipped his Tower with elevators to lift visitors up to its three levels. The first floor stands at 57 meters, the second at 115 meters, and the third at 276. Elevator construction was considered a great technical achievement at the time, further testament to Eiffel’s engineering genius.

Built initially to last only 20 years, the Eiffel Tower quickly became important for use in meteorology and radio technology, and later played a key role in the development of broadcast television. The first antenna, installed atop the Tower in 1909, launched wireless telegraphy that allowed France to communicate with the US during World War I. Due to these unexpected uses, the Tower escaped demolition. Today, it bears 120 antennae of all sizes and varieties. Fifty to sixty tons of paint applied every seven years protects the Tower from rust.

Nevertheless, even before its inauguration, detractors to La Tour Eiffel raised their voices in collective dissent. In a letter entitled "The Artists Protest", published in Le Temps on 14 February 1887, they baptized it the "Tower of Babel", the "dishonor of Paris", a "gigantic black factory chimney", a "barbaric mass" that dominated and humiliated Gothic Paris. They called the future monument "a hateful column of bolted iron". But Eiffel stood by his creation. He responded to his critics, saying “I believe the Tower will have its own beauty”. It would appear that history has proven him right. By the 1920s, the La Tour Eiffel had become a symbol of French modernism and the avant-garde. Today the Eiffel Tower is Paris’ most iconic monument, welcoming seven million visitors annually.

And 120 years after its inauguration, Loo and her classmates get to play among its shadows almost every day.


The Eiffel Tower over the Champs-de-Mars, courtesy of Rudiger Wolk and Wikimedia Commons.
The Eiffel Tower in July 1888, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
The Eiffel Tower and the 1889 Universal Exhibition, 1889, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Portrait of Alexandre Gustave Eiffel, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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