Writers in The Builder express complete disdain for the newly built Parisian landmark, describing it as a ”useless attempt to astonish the eye”
The Eiffel Tower is such a familiar image that it is easy to forget how extraordinary it must have looked for Parisians when it was first built. Nothing like it had ever been seen before – at more than 300m tall, it was nearly double the height of the the Washington Monument, formerly the tallest building in the world, which had been finished five years earlier.
In Britain, the tower was viewed with utter disapproval by architectural critics. “A useless attempt to astonish the eye”, “a foolish and costly piece of brag” and a “monstrosity” was how writers described it in The Builder, the predecessor to Building Design’s sister title Building. It would probably not be too far off the mark to suggest that some traditional Anglo-French rivalry had a role to play here.
But, despite the best efforts of The Builder, the tower quickly became an international sensation. Built as the centrepiece of the 1889 World’s Fair, the 100th anniversary of the French Revolution, nearly two million people had climbed it by the end of the exposition.
Below are a series of letters and excerpts of articles from The Builder revealing what people in Britain thought about the tower before, during and after its construction.
News item, 5 June 1886
Among other conditions, the official programme imposes on architects the obligation to show on plan, section and elevation, an iron tower 300 mètres in height. This gigantic construction, the utility of which is very questionable, was not calculated to stimulate the artistic spirit of the competitors, who have struggled bravely to produce an artistic and well-balanced ensemble with this “tower of Damocles” hanging over their heads.
M Dutert plants his tower on the Champ de Mars, isolated from the main exhibition building, in the midst of a great park, over which are scattered exotic architectural constructions half hidden among trees.
M Eiffel, the initiator and first proposer of this abnormal tower, places it at the entry of the Champ de Mars. His design is a triumph of metallic construction; vast, commodious, exceedingly practical, but as ugly as an iron railway station; with immense iron galleries, in horse-shoe form, furnished with an aerial railway to take spectators all round the exhibition.
Notes, 29 December 1888
Though not yet complete, the Eiffel Tower at Paris seems already to have achieved a popular renown in the very streets of London. Some of our readers may have noticed a chromo-lithograph bird’s-eye view of the Exhibition buildings, with the Eiffel Tower in the foreground, which has been put in some shop-windows as an advertisement that the owner is prepared to make or let show-cases, &c., for the exhibition.
Two or three very small boys of very much the lower order were looking at one of these in a shop-window, when we heard one say, “Yer wouldn’t think that was three times as ’igh ’s Paul’s, would yer?”
The small boy not only knew more about the Eiffel Tower than we should have expected, but was a better architectural critic than he was aware of. You certainly would not think in a picture that it was “three times as high as St. Paul’s”.
There seems to have been no attempt at all to treat the design so as to give scale to it. We hear a good deal from time to time about the superior taste of the French, but nothing combining such bad taste with such blatant and offensive prominence as are shown in the Eiffel Tower has ever been done in London yet. It is a mystery how such an artistic monstrosity came to be allowed in Paris.
Letter from Paris, 2 March 1889
As for the Eiffel Tower, it has already attained a height of 280 mètres, and in a month it will be completed by the turret and the electric lantern, which will give it its greatest height of 300 mètres. It is curious to notice today how inferior is the effect produced by this enormous piece of ironwork to the idea that people had of it in advance.
Seen from the environs of Paris, it overpowers the city, and appears immense by the side of the large monuments, which are reduced to very small dimensions; but the nearer one approaches it, the less is one aware of its colossal proportions, and the eye hardly sees what relation can exist between the thin termination of the tower and the gigantic arches of its base.
There is an optical illusion about it which will always weaken its general effect, and disappoint the hopes of the promoters of this useless attempt to astonish the eye by its giddy height. Our first impression about it is not the least altered, and in a decorative and architectural sense the complete Eiffel Tower pleases one no more than its first sketch.
Notes, 8 June 1889
Many hard things have been said in regard to the Eiffel Tower by architects, artists, and other such prejudiced persons. But the Eiffel Tower and its constructor can afford to despise all this.
The Eiffel Tower has been consecrated by receiving the blessing of M de Blowitz, who in his Paris letter in the Times of Monday last says, “I cannot but bestow the greatest admiration on this gigantic work, after seeing it close at hand.
“The plan, the execution, the details, the sensations which the tower awakens in those who visit it, will send the name of Eiffel to the extremities of the globe, and hand it down to succeeding generations.”
That, no doubt, was what it was built for, and that is the kind of success which is apt to call forth the admiration of the de Blowitzes of this generation.
The tower is no larger than one half-span of the Forth Bridge, but then the Eiffel Tower merely stands upright, whereas the Forth Bridge is built out horizontally into the air over deep water; the Forth Bridge is a useful work of engineering, the Eiffel Tower only a foolish and costly piece of brag. Yet there are numbers of Englishmen who will go over and hold up hands of wonder before the Eiffel Tower, who do not even know where the Forth Bridge is. But they will admire in company with M de Blowitz, and that is in itself a distinction - of a kind.
Notes, 22 June 1889
There is a story of an English sailor who remarked that he should like to get to the North Pole, “if it were only to hang his hat on it, for the say-so of the thing.” There does not seem to be much more than the “say-so “to be obtained from getting to the top of the Eiffel Tower, which this week has at last been thrown open to the public - as far as anything can be said to be “thrown open” with which French officialism is concerned.
In this respect the management of the Eiffel Tower is only too typical of a system of public administration of which the general object seems to be to exercise every device of red-tape to delay, annoy and irritate the visitor. It costs five francs to go to the summit of the Eiffel Tower; but you cannot purchase a ticket for the summit direct - that would be making it far too simple and easy. You must pay two francs at one office for a ticket for the première étage; arrived there, you have to search, at the further extremity of the large platform crowded with restaurants, &c., for the office where you have the privilege of purchasing for one franc a ticket for the deuxième étage.
Arrived there, you have to “make queue” for three-quarters of an hour or so to get to the ticket office where you pay two francs for the lifts for the final trip. There is a perfectly commodious and safe staircase up which any one in robust health could walk to the top in a few minutes; but this may not be used, for some unexplained reason.
You may descend from the second to the first platform by a staircase, but the continuation of the same staircase, by which you would naturally and easily continue the descent, is “défense de descendre,” and you have again to make an excursion amid the labyrinth of the first platform to find the staircase by which the rules permit you to descend to the ground.
By dint of these ingenious arrangements it results that the best part of an afternoon is consumed in getting to the top of this precious erection and getting down again, and employment is thus found for a number of incorruptible officials of the Republic in stopping everyone from employing the straight and easy way of going up and down.
When arrived at the top, it will be found that the spectacle is no better or more impressive than from the second platform, in fact rather less so, and the feeling of height does not seem greater than at the second platform. The only thing to be remarked on is the loss, from this point of view, of the spread of the Tower at the base, which, owing to the perspective diminu- tion, nearly disappears, and one seems to be looking down from the top of a nearly vertical construction.
Any one, however, who gave it a thought ought to know that this would be the case; it hardly seems worthwhile going to the top to prove it; and that is all the visitor will get by going, except irritation and loss of time.
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