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Glory in Uselessness : The Eiffel Tower: Joke's on Its Critics

April 23, 1987|STANLEY MEISLER | Times Staff Writer

PARIS — Just over 100 years ago, the leading writers, artists and intellectuals of France banded together to denounce the impending construction of what they called "the useless and monstrous" Eiffel Tower. Their petition made them one of French history's laughingstocks.

Ironically, their description, in a literal sense, was probably close to the mark. But writers such as Alexandre Dumas and Guy de Maupassant, architects such as Charles Garnier, composers such as Charles Gounod and all the tower's other famous critics were guilty of a great failure of imagination. They could not envision how the very uselessness and size of the tower would become its glory.

Once the Tallest

Today, it is hard to glimpse the tower looming over the aging, huddled buildings of Paris without marveling at its sheer audacity and at the imagination it took to design what was then the tallest structure in the world, construct it of girders of iron and set it for no purpose upon an elegant and genteel city.

Gustave Eiffel, the engineer who constructed the tower, always seemed a little defensive, at least in public, about its uselessness. In reply to the attack of the intellectuals, Eiffel insisted in 1887 that his tower would serve science as a laboratory on high for experiments and observations in meteorology, astronomy and physics.

But the defense sounded lame then, as it does today, when the tower is used to broadcast television throughout the Paris area, a phenomenon often cited as evidence that Eiffel was decades ahead of his time.

'Overwhelming Myth'

"These uses are doubtless incontestable," Roland Barthes, the late French sociologist, once wrote. "But they seem quite ridiculous alongside the overwhelming myth of the tower."

Barthes called the Eiffel Tower "an utterly useless monument" and counted that as an essence of its greatness.

The New Society for the Development of the Eiffel Tower, the part-private, part-city-owned company that runs the tower now, appears to agree. To celebrate the 100th anniversary of the opening of the tower in 1889, the society is planning a rather odd, yet somehow fitting, tribute. It intends to launch a 15-mile-wide ring of mirrors 500 miles into space to reflect sunlight and light up the sky with a kind of necklace of stars. The launching would cost $1.5 million, the mirrors would last three years before breaking up--and the project would have no practical purpose.

The space necklace, proposed by a team of six French architects and scientists, was selected as the best of 100 entries in a recent contest for a 100th anniversary project.

"We tried to think if Gustave Eiffel were here today," Grazena Szczesniak, the company's public relations officer, said, " . . . what would he do that is as foolish as the Eiffel Tower."

The Eiffel Tower has become the symbol of Paris much as Michelangelo's David is the symbol of Florence; the Washington Monument the symbol of Washington; the Kremlin and Red Square the symbol of Moscow; or the Statue of Liberty, another colossal French construction in which Eiffel had a hand, the symbol of New York. It is impossible544501536Eiffel Tower. It is impossible to come to Paris and escape the Eiffel Tower.

Short story writer De Maupassant, one of the original critics of the structure, used to insist that he often lunched at a restaurant in the Eiffel Tower even though he did not like the food. "It's the only place in Paris where I don't have to see it," he said.

In 1986, 4.5 million visitors spent 110 million francs ($18 million) in entrance fees to climb the stairs or take the sets of elevators to the top of the tower. But it is hard to believe that any of them, except perhaps for a few descendants of De Maupassant, did so to avoid seeing the tower.

The Eiffel Tower was a product of the exuberant optimism of the late 19th Century, of the feeling that science and the Industrial Revolution could create anything and do so in a monumental way. Jules Verne, the 19th-Century science fiction writer who could spin impossible dreams of submarines hurtling 20,000 leagues under the sea and of journeys to the center of the Earth, was the spiritual father of the mood that spawned the tower.

The optimism may have been forced. David P. Billington, a professor of architecture and engineering at Princeton University, has said that for the French, "the Eiffel Tower was a way of recovering their country's self-image as a great industrial nation after the ignominious defeat by the Germans in the Franco-Prussian War."

Gustave Eiffel was one of the best known engineers and constructors in France when he asked his staff to design a tower for the international fair that France was staging in 1889 on the 100th anniversary of the French Revolution.

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