Eiffel Tower: How most hated monument become most recognisable symbol of France

Paris, France: What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Paris? Probably the Eiffel Tower. It is a global symbol of France, and over 7,000,000 tourists visit it every year. But people hated the Eiffel Tower at first. They called it humiliating, monstrous, and “too American”.

Construction of the Eiffel Tower started in 1887 and finished in 1889 — just in time for the Exposition Universelle de Paris, a World’s Fair organised to celebrate the centenary of the French Revolution.

Its planning was a long and complex process, involving deep divisions in French politics, conflicts between traditionalists, modernists, and those who felt France was becoming too American… but, somehow, the project was greenlit.

The company contracted to build the tower was run by a man called Gustave Eiffel — who had fought for the project for years and after whom it was named. But, two engineers at his company, Maurice Koechlin and Émile Nouguier, designed the structure.

So the eyes of the world were on Paris, with millions of people coming from all over the globe to attend the exhibition. And this colossal iron tower, a genuinely unprecedented engineering achievement, was its main attraction.

No structure in human history had ever been taller than 200 metres — the Eiffel Tower soared to more than 300. It overtook the Washington Monument as the world’s tallest building, a title it would hold until the completion of the Chrysler Building in 1930.

But the Eiffel Tower was not an instant hit — quite the opposite. Some people were excited, but plenty more were horrified at the prospect of an iron tower looming over the Parisian skyline.

Many of France’s most famous artists, poets, and musicians wrote a short treatise protesting its construction. They said, among other things:

“Paris is unrivalled in the world… Italy, Germany, and Flanders, so rightly proud of their artistic heritage, possess nothing comparable to ours, and Paris attracts curiosity and admiration from every corner of the universe.”

“Will the city of Paris continue to associate itself with the mercantile fancies of a builder of machines, thereby making itself irreparably ugly and bringing dishonour to itself? Because the Eiffel Tower, which even the commercial Americans didn’t want, will disgrace Paris.”

“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 construction of this useless and monstrous Eiffel Tower.”

And that’s not all. The writer Guy de Maupassant allegedly ate lunch at the restaurant in the Eiffel Tower every day. Not because he loved it but because it was the only place in Paris from which it could not be seen.

Even as late as 1967, there was a plan to disassemble the Eiffel Tower, ship it to Montreal for the Universal Exposition, and reassemble it as part of France’s exhibition. This was rejected because Charles de Gaulle intended to refuse permission for its subsequent reconstruction in Paris.

These criticisms probably sound ridiculous to people today, most of whom love the Eiffel Tower. So… what changed? How did this “hateful” monument become the most recognisable symbol of France and a globally beloved monument?

There are many reasons, but the most straightforward and most robust is simply this: Time. See, Gustave Eiffel himself defended the tower by comparing it with the pyramids of Ancient Egypt:

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

And he made a perfect point. What is it that makes the Pyramids so interesting? The Luxor Las Vegas Hotel — a direct imitation of them in glass — certainly isn’t as famous. Are the Pyramids beautiful, impressive, and inspiring? Or… are they just old?

The simple truth is that anything can become enjoyable when enough time has passed. That’s why museums are filled with Medieval toothpicks, Roman hairclips, and shards of broken pottery. It was the 19th-century critic John Ruskin who put this best:

“…the greatest glory of a building is not in its stones or gold. Its glory is in its Age and in that deep sense of voicefulness, stern watching, mysterious sympathy, and even approval or condemnation, which we feel in walls that the passing waves of humanity have long washed. It is in their lasting witness against men, in their quiet contrast with the transitional character of all things, in the strength which, through the lapse of seasons and times, the decline and birth of dynasties, and the changing of the face of the earth, and the limits of the sea, maintains its sculptured shapeliness for a time insuperable, connects forgotten and following ages with each other, and half constitutes the identity, as it concentrates the sympathy, of nations; it is in that golden stain of time, that we are to look for the real light and colour, and preciousness of architecture…”

Powerful words. Such is the magic that was worked upon the Eiffel Tower, accruing as the years went on not only symbolic associations with the character of Paris and France more broadly but also gathering a sense of permanence, power, and grandeur.

Everything old was once new, and popularity is measured not by how people feel about something right now but by how they think about it in ten, twenty, or a hundred years.

This is no excuse for substandard architecture, but the story of the Eiffel Tower is some consolation for those works of modern architecture whose reputation might charitably be described as mixed. Even if people today look up at some ugly and obnoxious skyscraper with despair, future generations might look at it with fascination and curiosity, perhaps even admiration and affection.

The Paris of 1887 seemed like the Eiffel Tower would ruin it; the Paris of 2023 is inconceivable without it.

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