Monday, January 30, 2023

Take That, You Tower-Building Fiends

 The Eiffel Tower, most iconic of Paris’s monuments, has no obvious function beyond holding up an expensive restaurant and thousands of bewildered tourists. It also has no obvious significance. Notre Dame attests to the legitimizing relationship between the national government and God Almighty. The Arc de Triomphe celebrates the victories of France’s greatest general. Sacré Coeur Basilica expresses the Third Republic’s regrets for letting the proles get out of hand in 1871. The celebrated tower, however, says nothing except “Look at me, for I am tall.” Tourist oriented media identify two primary goals of Gustav Eiffel and his construction company: to demonstrate the capabilities of steel frame architecture, and to adorn the 1889 Paris exposition. Simon Winder argues, however (in Lotharingia [2019], p. 469, n.13.1), that the Tower’s great height, and the message it sent to a certain neighboring country, were its real purposes.

In the late nineteenth century France and Germany undertook an extended pissing contest over which nation had the tallest building in the world. France had held that rank since Louis XIV occupied Strasbourg (1681), whose cathedral’s spire rose to 142 meters. Germany took the record-setting building when it annexed Strasbourg, along with the rest of Alsace, in 1871. Unable to make good the loss of national territory, French builders redressed the new Franco-German height imbalance by completing the hideous metal spire of Rouen Cathedral (1876), height 151 meters. Germany riposted with Cologne Cathedral, whose *two* spires reached 157 meters upon completion in 1880. The Eiffel Tower, at 300 meters nearly twice as tall as its predecessor, represented a giant raised middle finger to German architects: “Follow that, you silly bastards.”

Strasbourg Cathedral, where all the trouble started.

France eventually lost the world height record to the Americans, upon completion of the Chrysler Building (319m) in 1930. By then the Republic had recovered Alsace and Strasbourg Cathedral, the start of the whole architectural arms race, in the First World War. It’s a pity that the French and Germans didn’t continue to sublimate their geographical rivalry into a tower-and-skyscraper contest, but I suppose they didn’t think a protracted phallus-calibrating contest was manly enough.

1889 view of the A Bas les Allemands Tower.

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