Were he alive, French architect Gustave Eiffel would have sympathized with Maya Lin. “Design a monument to a controversial historic period,” he might have told the young architect of the Vietnam Memorial, “and be prepared for criticism from every quarter.”
Eiffel would know. When, in the late 1880s, the French government decided to honor the centennial of the French Revolution(1789) by holding an International Exposition in Paris, it also decided to hold a design competition for a monument to honor that exposition, which would be built in central Paris. Eiffel, a metal construction expert whose background was in bridge design, submitted a drawing of an open-lattice, wrought-iron structure that would stand on four masonry piers, from which would rise four columns that eventually joined to form a single vertical tower. Platforms, each with an observation deck, were to be located on three levels with elevators that would ascend each of the four piers on a curve. The entire structure was to be 1,000 feet high, making it the world’s tallest man-made structure.
Eiffel’s design was chosen by the International Exposition Committee over 100 other entries, but upon being made public the design was immediately attacked by architectural experts, who questioned its structural soundness, and by public officials, who thought it would be a giant eyesore in the heart of the city. Devotees of the French Revolution that the memorial was meant to honor found nothing honorable about it, and many demonstrated against it.
With a sang-froid Maya Lin would have admired, Eiffel shrugged off the criticism and went to work, building his tower ahead of schedule, under budget, and at the human cost of just one fatality, a safety record unheard of in the 19th century for a project of such complexity and magnitude.
The Eiffel Tower, as it would be known, was dedicated this week (March 31) in 1889, with Eiffel the first to ascend the tower’s stairs (the elevators Eiffel had ordered were not yet installed) holding a giant French tricolor, which he and two companions affixed to the tower’s flagpole. And two months later, when the International Exposition opened to the public, the Eiffel Tower served as the entranceway.
Today, of course, the tower is no longer the world’s tallest structure, but it is among the world’s most recognized, and visited, monuments, pouring millions of tourist dollars into the French economy.
Interestingly, in addition to being so roundly condemned at its inception, the Eiffel Tower was almost demolished 20 years later, in 1909, when the International Exposition’s lease expired on the land on which the tower stood. What saved it was its value as a giant radio tower.
So much for French claims of cultural and artistic superiority.