Everyone loves the Eiffel Tower. Its classic, iconic shape is an instantly recognizable symbol of Paris. So you might be surprised to learn that while the tower was being built, art critics were not quite as glowing in their praise. Here are some of the more colorful phrases they used to describe it.
“this truly tragic street lamp” (Léon Bloy)
“this belfry skeleton” (Paul Verlaine)
“this mast of iron gymnasium apparatus, incomplete, confused and deformed” (François Coppée)
“this giant ungainly skeleton upon a base that looks built to carry a colossal monument of Cyclops, but which just peters out into a ridiculous thin shape like a factory chimney” (Maupassant)
“a half-built factory pipe, a carcass waiting to be fleshed out with freestone or brick, a funnel-shaped grill, a hole-riddled suppository” (Joris-Karl Huysmans)”
To modern eyes, the tower’s shape is elegant and graceful, perhaps even timeless. But to contemporary critics it was a monstrosity. The tower represented a new kind of aesthetic, and it took people a while to appreciate this. Eiffel was going after a deeper kind of beauty, a kind that wasn’t just skin deep. His notion of beauty had to do with economy and structural efficiency, with achieving the greatest strength with the least possible material. It had to do with seeing pure, efficient, well-engineered structures as works of art.
Hidden Rules of Harmony
Here’s Eiffel describing his new aesthetic, in response to his critics.
“Are we to believe that because one is an engineer, one is not preoccupied by beauty in one’s constructions, or that one does not seek to create elegance as well as solidity and durability? Is it not true that the very conditions which give strength also conform to the hidden rules of harmony? [..] there is an attraction in the colossal, and a singular delight to which ordinary theories of art are scarcely applicable.”
The Eiffel tower is incredibly well optimized to do what it was designed to do, to stand tall and stand strong, while using a minimum of material. Rather than hide its inner workings with a facade, Eiffel exposed the skeleton of his masterpiece. In doing so, he revealed its “hidden rules of harmony”, many of the same rules that give your skeleton its lightweight strength.
To understand Eiffel’s ingenious design, let’s start with a little puzzle. Imagine that someone melted all of the iron in the tower into a solid ball. How big do you think that ball would be?
Each of the balls shown in the image are drawn to scale, next to their diameters.
Before reading any further, take a moment to guess your answer. Continue reading