Monday, February 07, 2005

A Room with a Political View and You

The image of the Eiffel Tower has been copyrighted. In 2003 a new lighting scheme was installed that allows the city of Paris to control the image of the Eiffel Tower. The economics of this decision seem dubious: the Eiffel Tower brings in more tourism that sales of its image (how much does a 6-in. figure cost?).

Interestingly, the image was not always popular with Parisians. It was one of numerous symbols and structures, each with their own political significance, that competed for their devotion of the citizen of Light.

How Paris was seen always held political importance. In the mid 19th century royalists, republicans and Bonapartists were concerned with restraining the extent of construction. Each wanted views of the institutions that they built to be preserved. Building heights and construction in undeveloped areas were limited.

Hausmannization began the process whereby buildings became larger and more imposing. In 1859 building codes were changed so that heights along streets that were twenty meters wide — the new boulevards — could reach twenty meters. Gradually the height was increased over the years.

However, something else changed in building codes that allowed for more impressive, voluminous architecture. The height of the building was measures to the base of the roof, but the roof itself could be developed so long as it in did not exceed a specific angle (so that a minimum of sunlight reached the street). Roofs became ornate and immense. From streetlevel, the skies filled up with stone and steel behemoths that crowded out older buildings. Even the Sacré-Cœur, the royalist memorial to the soldiers killed by the Paris Commune, was more difficult to see even thought it was perched on Montmartre.

The Eiffel Tower was still visible throughout Paris, the last structure not obscured by the urban architectonics. But it was a controversial monument, described as "a phallus in opposition to the purity of the Sacré-Cœur." Together, the Eiffel Tower and the Sacré-Cœur represented competing ends of the political spectrum. Royalists and Bonapartists hated the tower; republicans embraced it as a symbol of progress, although half-heartedly.

The Eiffel Tower became a universal symbol because of how tourists viewed it. Paris had become a rich landscape that had been written (and rewritten) by succeeding regimes and competing political philosophies. Patrimony in the center of the city was so dense that it was difficult to establish a symbolic orientation.

Tourist found in the Eiffel Tower an abstraction that stood for nothing other than its own existence. Because it lacked specificity, because it was empty, as Barthes explains, the tower symbolized both Paris and France. Foreigners made the tower an unifying symbol that Parisians were forced to accept.

[Added:] Barista, where I originally read about the copyright issues, has another post on the Eiffel Tower, this one showing the 1937 lighting exhibition. Very cool!

[Also added:] As I was in transit to the library, I was listening to a segment on the Connection dealing with the unrealized scientific potential of the space station. The Eiffel Tower was original justified as a project of scientific importance, although no research was planned around it. After the first decade the number of visitors dropped dramatically (100,000-150,000 per year, less than 10% of its original attendance). The city considered dismantling it in order to open up space. In the 1900s the French military used the tower for experiments in radio telephony, which became essential to defense planning during WWI. Of course, the tower also offered the rudiments of air control and warning against aerial attacks.



At 10:13 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I found another image of the Tower at Arts and the Techniques Exhibit in 1937.

But I don't know much about the event or the architect and I'd love to find a colour image.

- david tiley


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