What was Gustave Eiffel thinking when he built the tower bearing his name? You know, that metal skeleton that sits by the Seine in Paris on the Champ-de-Mars. It has stood there since 1889 visible from almost anywhere in Paris. What would happen if it disappeared for good? Would Paris still remain an iconic destination without it?
Initially Parisians hated it. At over 300 metres tall it is ridiculously out of scale with the dimensions of anything else in Paris. Stupidly the building we know does not even carry the name of its designers, Maurice Koechlin and Émile Nouguier, or the engineers Stephen Sauvestre, that built it.
These opening comments are to take nothing from the builder of the tower. Gustave Eiffel had a well deserved reputation as a clever builder in steel. His ingenuity in building seemingly light buildings in steel was well established by the time he bought the rights to construct the tower. By then he had constructed many daring bridges that seemed to defy gravity. Building the tower was his last entrepreneurial effort as, for a time he was partially blamed for the collapse of the company building the Panama Canal. Eventually he was exonerated and spent the remainder of his life on scientific study, including wind tunnels and practical uses for the tower.
Each year the tower now attracts seven million visitors a year. It is the most popular single destination in the world and it has remained so long after the twenty years it was initially licensed to stand. By the time is was due to be removed it had become a favourite of Parisians.
Such is its popularity other cities around the world thought themselves important enough to have one too. Budapest, and other European cities have replicas. America boasts several. In Melbourne the Victorian National Gallery is wearing its second tower. The first one’s engineering failed. Neither of them pretended to be a replica but a tower was chosen to indicate the presence of the gallery among the Victorian buildings of the city. That hasn’t worked because the former height restrictions were lifted and now it is dwarfed by skyscrapers.
The Eiffel Tower is an impressive landmark but it was only built when the bare, practical lines of the design were altered with simple period embellishments. Koechlin’s first drawings were rejected possibly because the lines illustrated something far too practical – like a modern electricity pylon.
That is the difficulty with design, Stripped of all but practicality like something from the Bauhaus, where form follows function, the masses are quick to condemn utilitarian design. That is why simple design lines are often embellished to the point of ridiculousness.
This brings me to the motor car design of the Austin A90. I was ten when the Austin A90 Atlantic Sports Saloon was introduced. I thought it was the most beautiful flowing form ever to grace the roads. As soon as I could I visited the local car showrooms and was given a brochure of the vehicle. The brochure pictured a blue car in a rural scene.
The years fall off me as I remember the care I took to capture the lines and the details of this beautiful car. To keep me quiet Mum suggested I draw the car while she entertained her spinster guests, Miss Philpott and Miss Lucas, in the garden. I became so absorbed in what I was doing I forgot the task to draw was set as a diversion. My obsession was to recreate, in two dimensions the beauty I saw in the brochure,
The beautiful car is lost in history. Long ago I could see the over dressed nature of the design. Having used weekends cleaning our cars In the years since, I realised the impractical nature of its chrome features. The body had insufficient rust treatment and they rusted away like many post war English cars. To a point where very few of the cars now survive.
When it comes to iconic design of status – very vehicles few pass the test of time. Some say the Jaguar E class is one such car. However I do recall a one time lover of them saying how hard it was to turn the steering wheel without power steering so I suppose even great designs miss out on practical improvements.
Cars, of all types, changed the scale of the world last century. Before the mass use of cars people travelled infrequently. My great grandparents migrated to Australia from England by brigantine ship for economic reasons the century before. They were not unique but most people rarely ventured far from their place of birth before cars. As I observe, cars allowed more people to move about freely. By the end of last century they were so ubiquitous the sheer number of them clogged the roads in all corners of the world.
Tourism became a problem everywhere. France was no exception and a century after the Eiffel Tower was built the engineering capabilities of Eiffel were called upon to build the tallest bridge in France.
The Tarn valley in France became a bottleneck for traffic in the summer holiday season around the township Millau. This little village came to a halt when the domestic traffic got caught in the through traffic on the Larzac plateau each year.
So the French government spent decades deciding on how to keep the traffic flowing and not disturb the village life in the valley. This is how the company that first built the Eiffel Tower got the job of building the longest continuous steel bridge across a two and a half kilometre gap on concrete piers taller than the Eiffel Tower itself.
The story is long and it is not my intention to retell it here.
You can discover more from the official website.
You can learn something of the engineering problems solved in Richard Hammonds YouTube story here. YouTube/ richard hammond engineering connections millau bridge
The Eiffel Tower and the Austin A90 are linked as part of the story behind the Millau Bridge.
I hope you comment if you have travelled the bridge or you have hollidayed below it. Is the township of Millau covered by inconvenient shade from the bridge at any time?
Thank you for reading.
My next project is to write with excitement about the 2040 project. Have you heard of it?