an architecture of the sky


Ever since its appearance on the Parisian skyline in 1889, the Eiffel Tower has drawn criticism and praise aplenty. Among its earliest detractors, Guy de Maupassant saw the tower as an affront to his nation’s proud cultural heritage and dined regularly in its restaurant because that was the one spot in Paris from which he didn’t have to look upon “this giant and disgraceful skeleton.” (Other­wise, he complained, “you see it from everywhere . . . an unavoidable and horrid nightmare.”) Maupassant’s contemporary Paul Gauguin stood at the opposite end of the spectrum, hailing the tower as a “triumph of iron” and an exciting new art form. But across the board, as Roland Barthes has noted, the Eiffel Tower “attracts meaning, the way a lightning rod attracts thunderbolts.” Indeed, to offer an opinion of this monument is to comment, wittingly or otherwise, on the past, present and future of French civilization. In “Eiffel’s Tower: And the World’s Fair Where Buffalo Bill Beguiled Paris, the Artists Quarreled, and Thomas Edison Became a Count,” Jill Jonnes examines — with splendid attention to detail, if not always with writerly finesse — the importance the tower assumed in its own historical moment. Built by the engineer Gustave Eiffel as the centerpiece of the 1889 Exposition Universelle, the vaulting iron structure was intended, Jonnes writes, as “a potent symbol of French modern industrial might, a towering edifice that would exalt science and technology, assert France’s superiority over its rivals (especially America) and entice millions to visit Paris.” These were pressing goals, for by 1889, the French government had — after a century of pendulum swings between the forces of revolution and reaction — reinvented itself yet again, as the Third Republic.

more from Caroline Weber at the NYT here.