Some artists create with paint and canvas, some with stone, some with glass. Suppose an artist wished to work with more intangible media, such as light, sky, and air? The Eiffel Tower in Paris is a feat of architecture that somehow manages to marry science, industrialization, and engineering, with the light, airy aesthetic that draws the eyes upwards into the sky. After two world wars, including a Nazi occupation, the Eiffel Tower has also become a symbol of French freedom and enduring spirit.
The Eiffel Tower was conceived at a vibrant period of art in Parisian history, often called the Belle Époque, or the “beautiful age.” A variety of interconnected art movements influenced the artistic atmosphere leading up to the Belle Époque. Scientific and industrial advancements created expansion in architectural possibilities. Realism, a reaction against romanticism, sought to convey the physical world with accuracy, taking inspiration in the ordinary. Increased understanding of the scientific origins of light and color inspired a new movement in painting called Impressionism. Artists like Claude Monet and Pierre August Renior captured the world around them by observing and seeking to replicate the interplay of light and color to create image.
Against this backdrop, a challenge emerged to create a tower 300 meters high, “equivalent to the symbolic height of 1000 feet,” for the 1889 World’s Fair. Gustave Eiffel, from whom the tower would take its name, along with engineers Maurice Koechlin and Emile Nouguie and architect Stephen Sauvestre, were selected from over 100 other interested parties to spearhead the project.
In order to achieve its great height, the designers had to rely on scientific and engineering ingenuity and problem solving. The groundwork needed to be reinforced against potential softening of the ground from the river Seine. The base had to be wide enough, and the weight distributed precisely enough, to achieve the desired height and stability. The project was a delicate dance of physics, industrialism, and design. As the English translation on the Tower’s website explains, “Each of the 18,000 pieces used to construct the Tower were specifically designed and calculated, traced out to an accuracy of a tenth of a millimeter and then put together forming new pieces around five meters each.”
In addition to being up against practical challenge, the team received criticism from Parisians on the basis both of safety concerns and aesthetics. A collection of artists protested, complaining that the iron tower would be an industrial blight on the city’s beautiful architecture. This was, afterall, the Belle Époque. However, by the time of its completion a little over two years later, a tower that was meant to be a 20-year exhibit had become a beloved and permanent fixture in the Paris skyline. When construction ended on March 31, 1889, Gustave Eiffel raised the French flag himself. He is reported to have commented, “I have just experienced a great satisfaction – that of having flown our national flag upon the tallest building man has ever built."
That particular flag raising marked a scientific and architectural victory. A little over 50 years later, though, a flag raising over the Eiffel Tower would mark a much greater victory—and add even more meaning to the tower’s presence. After four tumultuous years of Nazi occupation, Paris was finally liberated from Germany. On August, 25 1945, with the streets of Paris still echoing with gunfire, six firefighters climbed to the top of the tower to take down the Nazi flag, and restore the French flag to its rightful place above the city. Despite the heavy loss and devastation of the years before, the tri-color blue, white, and red flag flying served as a beacon to the citizens of Paris that their freedom had returned.
Marien, Mary Warner, William Flemmning. Arts and Ideas. 10th Ed. Thomson Wadsworth 2005.
“Modern Marvels” Eiffel Tower. Season 2, episode 15. The History Channel. 1996.