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Friday25 July 2014

Colossal by Darcy Grimaldo Grigsby

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Colossal: Engineering The Suez Canal, Statue of Liberty, Eiffel Tower and Panama Canal
by Darcy Grimaldo Grigsby
Periscope Publishing,
224pp, £45

This compelling analysis of 19th-century mega-projects is a cautionary tale about vanity

Statue of Liberty

Source: Christian Kempf

Hitting the heights: the Statue of Liberty reaches waist-level in around 1882.

This is, as you might expect, a big and heavy book, packed with pages of densely set sans-serif type. The writing can be a little heavy, too: “Here was the sculptural process,” says Grimaldo Grigsby, discussing the making of the Statue of Liberty, “involving a real reliance on indexicality, but contrary to photosculpture, this indexicality was haptic, not optic.”

I have no idea what this means, and found the going hard by this time — about a third of the way through — and yet, there is much here that is intensely well researched, freshly thought through and grimly compelling.

Essentially, Colossal is a study of four giant projects by French artists and engineers in the second half of the 19th century. These were designed (a) to impress and (b) to facilitate global commerce. All four were inspired by the expeditions made to Egypt by young engineers in Napoleon’s service at the end of the previous century. Awed by the achievements of the ancient Egyptians, the French would seek to outdo the pharaohs.

The resulting structures — questionable, and even absurd, in the mind of the Panamanian-American author — continue to inspire colossal and hugely costly projects today, from the Orbit and the Shard to the Burj Khalifa and the Soviet-style African Renaissance Monument, a bronze colossus that has overlooked the Atlantic Ocean from Dakar since 2010.

With its anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist message, Colossal is, however, as much a forensic analysis of the Suez and Panama Canals, the Statue of Liberty and the Eiffel Tower as it is a morality tale. The story of these Goliaths, Grimaldo Grigsby seems to be saying, is akin to that of the Tower of Babel, told in Genesis, a story of overweening ambition and God’s revenge on human vanity.

We read of the French failing spectacularly — after huge expenditure and the deaths of 22,000 poorly paid and ill-treated workers, many from the West Indies — in their ambition to connect the Pacific and Atlantic oceans by cutting a canal across the Panama isthmus. In this sordid episode, involving inglorious mud, financial miscalculation and corruption, Gustave Eiffel was among those brought to trial and sentenced, in his case, to a large fine and two years in jail (the great engineer was reprieved).

Awed by the achievements of the Egyptians, the French would seek to outdo the pharaohs

We read of how the latest 21st-century superfreighters shipping cheap goods from China to millions of greedy homes around the world are too big to squeeze their bulk through the Panama Canal, completed by the Americans after a further 5,600 deaths in time for the outbreak of the first world war.

Not that the effects of such colossal projects were all bad. Grimaldo Grigsby notes that the Hoover Dam used engineering technology invented for the construction of the Panama Canal, while the skyscraper would have been unthinkable — or partly unthinkable — without the Eiffel Tower (a “configuration of vectors of force”) and the Statue of Liberty, designed by the sculptor Bartholdi and engineered by Eiffel.

I was intrigued to learn that Thomas Edison came up with the idea of installing a giant phonograph inside Liberty’s mouth that would have allowed her to speak to new arrivals as they sailed into New York. But, as the author is keen to point out: “Man-made enormity was originally an expression of power and unassailable authority; it now verges on kitsch and hallucination.”

This may well be true, and yet Grimaldo Grigsby, for all her politics and polemics, is also an astute and tenacious historian. The research is impressive and, at first, I think she almost wills on her cast of colossal characters. In fact, thinking of how those young engineers might have reacted to the monuments of ancient Egypt made me look afresh at a favourite 18th-century print: The Artist in Despair over the Magnitude of Antique Fragments, by Henry Fuseli. An artist, draped rather like Liberty herself, broods besides the gigantic hand and foot from a colossal statue of Constantine the Great — although these antique limbs might easily have belonged to a pharaoh, or even Bartholdi’s colossal torchbearer.
Somehow, though, French engineers rose to the occasion.

If the pharaoh Sesostris could build a Suez canal (he did — completed by Darius the Great, it fell into disuse in the 8th century) the French empires would go one better. Satirists mocked them, but what giants men like Ferdinand de Lesseps, the driving force behind the Suez and Panama Canals, were. There is a photograph of the Frenchman in about 1885 sitting in a large group of children in front of the Great Pyramid of Cheops. All these children — and more — were his. Married a second time at the age of 64 to a 20-year-old, Lesseps sired 12 children, the last when he was 80, adding to the five from his first marriage. Clearly, virility went hand-in-hand with imperial ambition.

For me, though, one of the most telling images in this profusely and well illustrated book is a drawing from Scientific American at the time of the opening of the Panama Canal. It depicts the spoil taken from the Panama isthmus to build the canal. This is heaped to form 63 pyramids, each the size of the Great Pyramid of Cheops, and shown stretching along Broadway from what is today Battery Park all the way up to Harlem.
The Americans had well and truly beaten the Egyptians in the size game. Their global economy was now a colossus.

From a reading of this dense and challenging book, it seems that perhaps we can expect the equivalent of the ancient pyramids — along with giant new dams and skyscrapers — to be built in China, although not perhaps by the heirs of either the pharaohs or the French engineers who followed in the shadow of Napoleon along the Nile a little more than two centuries ago.

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