“I ought to be jealous of the tower. She is more famous than I am.”
Gustave Eiffel’s words have a prophetic ring. The Eiffel Tower continues to be more famous than the man who designed and fought for her existence. Surrounded by a history of controversy, the Tower embraces the whole of Paris within her benevolent gaze, confident that her ageless splendour will continue into the next century. It is difficult to believe that many well-known and respected writers and artists objected to her existence.
They called themselves the “Artists against the Eiffel Tower.” Charles Gounod, Guy de Maupassant, Alexandre Dumas junior, François Coppée, Leconte de Lisle, Sully Prudhomme, William Bouguereau, Ernest Meissonier, Victorien Sardou and Charles Garnier participated in a protest that included the words:
“To comprehend what we are arguing one only needs to imagine for a moment a tower of ridiculous vertiginous height dominating Paris, just like a gigantic black factory chimney, its barbarous mass overwhelming and humiliating all our monuments and belittling our works of architecture, which will just disappear before this stupefying folly. And for twenty years we shall see spreading across the whole city, a city shimmering with the genius of so many centuries, we shall see spreading like an ink stain, the odious shadow of this odious column of bolted metal.”
The twenty years was an reference to the Tower’s demolition, which was scheduled to occur in 1909. Fate (and technology) intervened when the Tower was transformed into a giant radio antenna. And despite the protestations of the early naysayers, the Eiffel Tower was officially declared to be a historical monument in 1964.
Gustave Eiffel remained unfazed by the criticism. He went so far as to compare his efforts with those of the pharaohs of Egypt.
“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?”
Today, on March 31, 2016, we celebrate another anniversary of the Eiffel Tower’s opening in 1889. In the Tower’s inaugural year, a staggering two million visitors came to view the monumental accomplishment.
When they saw the completed Tower, many of the dissenters changed their mind; others never accepted Gustave Eiffel’s engineering achievement. And while we may, from the clarity of hindsight, disparage those who spoke out against the project, I would rather view the debate as a necessary dialogue. Embracing new ideas has great merit, but recognizing traditions and past contributions has equal importance.
I invite you to discover Paris and the Eiffel Tower for yourself.