Every year 2.5 million people converge on the 7th arrondissement to climb up the Eiffel Tower and over 125 million have done so since it was inaugurated in 1889. Parisians make up only 5% of the visitors and often under pressure from their children. Most turn their noses up at this emblem of touristy kitsch, as do quite a number of worldly foreigners.
A hundred years ago, by contrast, people responded to the Eiffel Tower with childlike spontaneity. On 31 March 1889, the second anniversary of the beginning of its construction, a 60-strong tail-coated, top-hatted and monocled party made the first official ascent. Prime Minister Gustave Tirard gave up at the first floor, followed by most of the others, but Gustave Eiffel persevered, urging the last 10 breathless participants on to the top, where, with Paris spreading at his feet, he was awarded the Légion d’honneur by the Minister of Trade, Gustave Lockroy. The honour, however, should have been shared by the two original designers, Koechkin and Nouguier, who were engineers in Eiffel’s company and whose project had won the competition to build a striking monument for the 1889 Universal Exhibition.
Officially, the Exhibition was to commemorate the centenary of the French Revolution and among the projects in competition was a gigantic guillotine in honour of the victims of the Terror. But, above all, by organising the Exhibition, the Third Republic, beleaguered by anarchists, revisionists and Boulangistes, sought to boost patriotic feelings and achieve political cohesion. The Exhibition was to mark the recovery of the Republic and hail France’s spectac;ular entry into modernity. It was to bestow upon her international prestige and dazzle the world with France’s technological wizardry. Magnitude reigned supreme, superlatives were on every lip.
The gigantic Galérie des Machines, but especially the Eiffel Tower, nicknamed ‘La Colossale’, was natually the highlight of the Fair. Rising 318 metres above the ground, it was twice the height of the tallest construcion hitherto ever built by man. Only in 1930 would the Chrysler building in New York challenge it and put an end to its supremacy, though never to its status as an emblem. Despite its gigantic dimensions, the Tower weighed only 7,000 tons, an awesome technical feat in itself. Yet, on 7 May 1889, the day of its solemn inauguration, none of the lifts worked! Not everyone had greeted the project favourably- there was a lot of apprehension and harsh criticism against it. Some Parisians, endowed with exuberant imagination and too panic-stricken to worry about mathematical accuracy, were terrified that the 300-metre tower would sway and collapse, crushing the city all the way to Montmartre! But the main campaign against the Eiffel Tower was based on aesthetic grounds.
Guy de Maupassant, after an impulse to pack up and move out of the capital, decided instead to eat in the second-floor restaurant, the only spot in Paris from where it could not be seen. He and 50 other celebrities from the world of arts and letters—Charles Gounod, Leconte de Lisle, François Coppée, Alexandre Dumas, Charles Garnier —signed a petition in the name of Art and Civilisation, against the ‘monstrous construction’, and showered on her multiple metaphors such as ‘hollow candlestick’, ‘solitary riddled suppository’, ‘bald umbrella’and ‘skeleton’. The more progressive members of the intelligentsia thought differently.
The painter Robert Delaunay, one of the champions of modernity, preferred the Tower to any other model, to judge by the number of paintings he devoted to her. As part of the World Fair, the Eiffel Tower was meant to be an ephemeral structure and only Eiffel’s influential position enabled him to obtain a 20-year concession to exploit it. In 1909 the enemies of the Tower intensified their protest campaign, claiming that ‘in any case she is useless’ (the use of the female gender puzzled Irwin Shaw who saw it rather as a phallic symbol). Such an argument carried weight in those utilitarian days. Fortunately, its height was its salvation: wireless was beginning to be used to transmit messages, and the tall iron tower proved to be a marvellous antenna.
The first news bulletin was broadcast from the Eiffel Tower in 1925, and in 1935, a score of excited enthusiasts picked up its first television broadcast, thrilled at the sight of a black disc bouncing on the screen! So there she is, still standing firmly on her four spread-out feet, the Iron Lady, the unassailable emblem of Paris. Even visitors familiar with the Empire State Building or the World Trade Center feel overwhelmed and uplifed as they approach it; all the more so, when they stop to think that 15,000 metal pieces held together in perfect balance by 2.5 million rivets (and 7 million rivet holes) and weighing a mere 7,000 tons, are all this gigantic structure amounts to—an extraordinary, technological feat.
Hitler, however, was an exception who, when rushing through Paris in 1940, went to see it briefly and commented: “Is that all it is? It’s ugly!” Some people find it gracefully feminine, even during the day, when it cannot conceal its raw metal framework under luminous guise. Cocteau’s metaphor, ‘The Iron Shepherdsess’, is perhaps the most apt, especially as the Tower has eight lightning conductors and thus actually protects Paris from lightning. During World War I nearly 50,000 words were received and transmitted from the Eiffel Tower; this alone proved a very good reason not to demolish it.
Mata Hari led a double life as spy and nude dancer at the Eiffel Tower, at the time, but it was this that gave her away. Identified through the tower’s radio transmissions as H21, she was captured and shot on 15 october 1917. The sporty community were also inspired by the Eiffel Tower and came here to try their hand at different feats. Thus, emulatting Icarus some eccentrics climbed it with their flying machines or parachuting gear. One such attempt by an Austrian called Reichelt in 1912 ended a few seconds after it had begun, when he hit the ground head first. In 1977 a French stunt man took off on a hang-glider from the first floor, while an English couple parachuted from the third. In the same year an American pilot succeeded in flying between the legs of the tower and lost his flying licence as a consequence. There were climbing contests and even a beauty contest in 1937 presided over by the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, when the minimum height required of entrants was 1.75 metres as a token of respect for the tall iron structure.
Acrobats, cyclists, a ballerina and lovers have come here, but also hundreds of desperadoes determined to put an end to a wretched or meaningless existence. Some were locals and some had come up from the provinces; some even from overseas, by train or by plane to die at her feet. Of the 380 people who have hurled themselves from the Eiffel Tower, only one escaped death – a young woman who in 1964 jumped from the first floor but landed on the roof of a parked car. That year the number of suicides rose alarmingly to an average of one per month, since when parapets have been installed around the Tower.
On a more cheerful note, do go to the top for an unforgettable view of Paris. Those who can, will not regret completing the experience with a dinner at the Jules Verne on the second floor, especially by night. You may have understandable reservations about falling into the ultimate tourist trap, but excellent cuisine is guaranteed and, with the western secion of Paris floodlit at your feet, French talent for grandiose town-planning is displayed here at its best.
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