Eiffel Tower

Exposition Universelle 1889

No, it's not a Forgotten Delight. But the debate that preceded the Eiffel Tower's construction is a vivid reminder that it's risky to judge a building based solely on technicalities such as size.

Like a gigantic, barbaric black smokestack!

The Eiffel Tower was built as the centerpiece for the Paris Exposition Universelle (World’s Fair) of 1889. The competition rules required a tower 300 meters (980 feet) high. The winner of the competition was Gustave Eiffel, a prominent engineer who in 1881 had designed the structural skeleton of the Statue of Liberty, dedicated 1886.

Construction of the tower for the Exposition began in January 1887. A month later, to oppose the building of the tower, the “Committee of Three Hundred” was formed: one for each meter of the tower’s proposed height. Members included some of France’s most famous artists: Charles Garnier, who had designed the Paris Opera (inaugurated 1875); Adolphe Bouguereau, the most prominent French painter of the period; Guy de Maupassant, famous for his short stories (have you read “The Necklace” lately?); and opera composers Charles Gounod (Faust) and Jules Massenet (Manon). Their letter to the man in charge of the Exposition Universelle read, in part:

We, the writers, painters, sculptors, architects, and passionate devotees of the beauty of Paris, which has hitherto been untouched – we protest with all our strength, with all our indignation, in the name of the good taste of the French, in the name of French art and history that are being threatened, against the erection in the midst of our capital of this useless and monstrous Eiffel Tower ....

Imagine for a moment a vertiginously, ridiculously high tower that dominates Paris like a gigantic black smokestack; it crushes under its barbaric weight Notre Dame, the Saint-Chapelle, the Dome of Les Invalides, the Arc de Triomphe. All our monuments are humiliated, all our architecture is dwarfed; they vanish in this stupefying dream. And for twenty years, across the whole city – in which still shimmers the genius of so many centuries - we shall see stretching, like a blot of ink, the odious shadow of the odious column of bolted sheet metal.

Exposition Universelle 1889

Gustave Eiffel responded:

"My tower, at 300 meters, will be among the most beautiful monuments man has ever erected, and it will take its place not in the streets but in a place suitable to receive such a grand conception: the Champs de Mars. Thus Paris will truly become a privileged town, and the first to erect something so colossal. So let us ask: should one refuse the means of attaining an eternal fame, by rejecting that which has never been done before? Doesn’t that mean we risk dishonoring our wondrous city?

To read the protest and Eiffel’s reply in French, click here. The translation above is a combination of the translation in the Wikipedia article on the Eiffel Tower and my own reading of the French text.