It has attracted its fair share of home-grown critics over the years but the Eiffel Tower remains an enduring attraction for visitors to Paris.
What though, among a host of French national treasures, is the biggest drawcard for the foreigner? Heady perfumes, joyous wines, incomparable artwork? No, seemingly much greater than all these is a stark 300m vertical iron protrusion.
The Eiffel Tower has, during its 125-year existence, drawn controversy, criticism and publicity seekers, but above all, tourists. Few structures have been as well documented or exploited, yet little has undermined its potency as a symbol of all things French, nor diminished criticism of its creator’s appalling architectural taste.
Constructed by Gustave Eiffel for the Paris Exhibition in 1889, the tower’s design owed more to 19th-century bridge-building techniques than artistic inspiration. Eiffel had already achieved engineering fame by pioneering the railway viaducts which gave access to France’s mineral rich Massif Central region.
While this technology was perhaps applicable to opening up the French hinterland, few deemed it appropriate for downtown Paris. Far less, its critics considered, did it deserve pride of place in the centenary celebrations to showcase French technological progress and prosperity.
Dumas, Maupassant, Bouguereau and many others signed a protest against the “ridiculous tower dominating Paris like a black factory chimney”, something considered a “dishonor to the city”.
But Eiffel was well able to suffer the slings and arrows of outrage, his fortune already guaranteed. Having secured the rights to tourist revenue for the first 20 years of the tower’s life, he merrily watched as 25 million visitors flocked to Paris in the first year alone.
Initially trained as a chemist, Eiffel had achieved the alchemist’s dream without a single test tube or chemical equation, turning 7000 tons of wrought iron into a pure goldmine.
A century later, the construction remains centre-stage in a city possessing a wealth of tourist drawcards.
Originally, however, it was considered worthy of only a limited lifespan. Its survival was ensured by the advent of transcontinental communications and flight, the tower becoming both a radio transmitter and navigational aid for aircraft. Later it was used as an advertising spot for Citroen. The Eiffel Tower’s history is filled with many interesting facts.
Today, millions of visitors pay for the privilege of wheezing their way up the tower’s endless steps for a splendid panoramic view of the capital.
So as the city’s most celebrated piece of scaffolding soldiers into its second century, it does so not as the garish disgrace it was considered at its birth. Rather, it has become the quintessential icon of France in the same way that Big Ben and the Statue of Liberty have come to symbolize Britain and the United States.