Eiffel Tower Engineering Stands the Test of Time


The Eiffel Tower is as symbolic of the romance of the City of Lights as a baguette in a bike basket. As the tallest structure in the world for 31 years, it was also a miracle, not only of engineering but of prefabrication and precision manufacturing.  And it was opened to the public 126 years ago today.  (Thanks, Google)

Little known fact: the architect of the Eiffel Tower was not engineering entrepreneur, Gustave Eiffel. When Eiffel’s engineers, Emile Nouguier and Maurice Koechlin, came up with the structural design for the tower, he turned to his friend Stephen Sauvestre to make it a project that could win a national competition.  Sauvestre added the grand arches which (appear to) support the first level, as well as the  heavy masonry feet at the four corners which visually anchor the tower.

18,000 Parts: Design is in the Details

The most impressive element of Le Tour Eiffel is not stature or social standing but the precision planning that went into its creation.  This centennial article in New Scientist (1988) tells the story.

The tower was completed ahead of schedule, in 26 months, and the design of its construction and assembly were as carefully considered as the final structure.  That design took 18 months and 50 engineers, and resulted in  5300 sheets of construction drawings.   Since the wind forces vary by distance from the ground, nearly every piece had to be uniquely calculated. All of that work paid off spectacularly in the construction.

eiffel tower detail drawings

Each of 18,000 elements were pre-fabricated at a factory on the outskirts of the city, to a precision of .1 millimeters.  The pieces were bolted together at the factory in segments, to ensure the 7 million holes lined up properly, then riveted for greater strength on site in four-man teams. The structure was subdivided into components with a maximum weight of 3 tons to reduce the risk of on-site accidents. The construction mechanisms were reused in the final design – visitors traveled up and down along tracks that had been used to haul parts during construction.

The 5300 sheets of drawings themselves are a work of art.  From the toureiffel website:

eiffel tower blueprints

eiffel tower blueprints

Useless and Monstrous: Everyone’s A Critic

The tower is a universally beloved national landmark today but it went up to decidedly mixed reviews.  The Exposition committee who had commissioned it, and the public who flocked to the fair grounds, passing through its enormous arch, were thrilled with the experience.  But the residents of local neighborhoods feared that it might tip and fall on their homes, only ceasing in their demands for a stop-work when Eiffel himself insured the project.  A group of Parisian artists and intellectuals banded together to protest the design of the tower:

We, the writers, painters, sculptors, architects and lovers of the beauty of Paris, do protest with all our vigor and all our indignation, in the name of French taste and endangered French art and history, against the useless and monstrous Eiffel Tower.

Author Guy de Maupassant reputedly ate an embittered lunch regularly on the 1st level restaurant because it was the only place in Paris where he couldn’t see the tower.

In retrospect it almost sounds like a grumpy “kids these days” argument.  What was seen as ghastly un-ornamented mechanics now seem lacy, delicate and serve as a symbol for the romance of Paris. If the artists who signed a petition to block Eiffel’s tower hated that, what would they have made of International Modernism … or of Brutalism?

eiffel tower construction

250 Million Visitors: Eiffel Tower Through The Ages

Today the tower is s symbol that stands for a city and a culture but it was built for a specific event with a 20 year permit (Paris intended to disassemble it after its use).  It was preserved not because the city had already fallen in love with its image but because it had become a valuable radio signal tower (it now broadcasts TV as well) and was to useful to take down.  Even at the time of its construction, however, some recognized it as a herald of the new era of construction and modern possibility.  As Eiffel defended his project:

“For my part I believe that the Tower will possess its own beauty. Are we to believe that because one is an engineer, one is not preoccupied by beauty in one’s constructions, or that one does not seek to create elegance as well as solidity and durability?”

To me, it is a perfect visual proof of the beauty of exposed structure, the elegance of (relatively) unadorned function; a case study in modernism.

Although its base use (a little science and a lot of tourism) hasn’t changed, the growing needs of serving the touring public have required some updates.  A recent remodel of the tower has aimed to repair the elevators and to make the tower more energy efficient (adding solar hot water systems, LED ligthing and wind power generators) and more accessible to persons with disabilities, at least as far as the first level.  The reconstruction has been designed by Moatti-Riviere Architects aims to give greater reasons for tourists to pause on the first level before racing to the top for the maximum view. Photo below via Dezeen’s coverage.  Looks like it might be time for a return trip to Paris.

eiffel tower remodel