Arts: Towers, Arches and Barns

 

The Eiffel Tower in Paris reminds us every day how Western man for millennia has pursued transcendent beauty and structural challenge.

It is amazing that the Tower is made of so many thousands of individual pieces of iron but that it comes together as one unified sculpture. That, however, is what architecture and engineering become in the hands of a master designer like Gustave Eiffel – sculpture.

The Tower seems almost weightless, as if planning to shoot upward into space, as if its ten thousand tons of iron is no impediment to its rising from its site. This is a quality of all great art, to escape the banality of worldly gravity, to avoid a “heavy” appearance, and to have a natural lightness.

The Tower was built as the entrance arch for the 1889 Exposition Universelle. It has 18,038 separate pieces of puddle iron and 2.5 million rivets. It was only intended to be temporary. Now a permanent structure, the Tower makes Paris identifiable immediately like Brunelleschi’s dome in Florence or the Parthenon atop the Acropolis in Athens.

The Tower is 1,063 feet tall and has three levels for visitors. The first two levels can be reached by elevator or by 300 steps each, and both have restaurants. The third level at the top only can be reached by elevator.

Many Parisians hated the Tower when it was built (and some do today) and the newspapers were filled with ruthless criticisms. Novelist Guy de Maupassant is said to have despised it so much that he ate lunch there every day. Why? The answer to this riddle is at the end of this column.

The Tower originally was intended only to stand until 1909 but its value for communications led to a stay of execution and it since has become a world landmark.

During World War II, the French cut the elevator cables so that Hitler would not be able to ascend the Tower unless he walked up, which he never did.

On November 28, 2002, the Eiffel Tower received its 200 millionth guest. It had 6.72 million guests in 2006 alone and it is the most-visited paid monument in the world.

The Tower today has four powerful searchlights on the top, and it displays 20,000 flashbulbs on its outer structure every hour on the hour during darkness.

The Tower is said to be so structurally spare that if the all the metal in it were melted down, it would form a puddle of metal with the dimensions of the Tower’s base but only 2 inches thick.

When built it was the tallest structure in the world, and the effect of wind forces were critical in the design. The Tower sways 2 to 3 inches in the wind. Eiffel said: "Now to what phenomenon did I give primary concern in designing the Tower? It was wind resistance. Well then! I hold that the curvature of the monument's four outer edges, which is as mathematical calculation dictated it should be [...] will give a great impression of strength and beauty, for it will reveal to the eyes of the observer the boldness of the design as a whole…”

So Eiffel, like any truly great designer, married mathematics to aesthetics to create a structure that would stand up to the two most ruthless forces of all – time and nature.

The Eiffel Tower is one of the most copied structure in the world with more than 30 large replicas in places like Vietnam, Russia, Las Vegas, Tennessee, Florida, China, Virginia, Ohio and Germany and countless small ones.

The Tower is so famous that there once was said to be a plan to borrow it. Montreal, Canada mayor Jean Drapeau once claimed that he negotiated with French president Charles de Gaulle to disassemble the tower and move it to Montreal for the Expo 67 world’s fair. The company that operated the Tower opposed the idea, however, out of fear that the French government could deny permission for rebuilding in Paris.

The Tower’s elegant design in fact has passed the test of time. It has ageless beauty. And it gives Paris a public face. Otherwise there are no tall buildings in Paris to identify it like the Empire State Building in New York, the Transamerica Pyramid in San Francisco or the twin Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia designed by Cesar Pelli.

Another city immediately identifiable by a famous monument is St. Louis, Missouri which has its famous Gateway Arch. St. Louis has some other fine structures built in the 19th and early 20th century, including its train station and other buildings. But in the modern era, St. Louis has not had much to speak for it.

Then came the Arch (top of page). Designed by architect Eero Saarinen, who never lived to see it built, the Arch is truly a thing of beauty. It is based on a catenary, which is what you get when you put two nails in the wall at equal distance from the floor and you hang a chain between them. The “sag” in the chain is a catenary arch (there also is a mathematical formula which is far too complex to present here).

When designing the St. Louis Arch, Saarinen hung a variety of chains on his studio wall to determine which would be the most pleasant to look at. He came to an interesting conclusion. Today, viewed from head on, the arch is not taller than it is wide as you might suspect, but is a perfect square; it is exactly as wide at the outer points of the base as it is tall – 630 feet. So obviously Saarinen was using his high intelligence to settle on this proportion

Why? Because he knew that most views of the Arch would be from an angle, and that too steep an arch would then appear far too sharp from any angle from which it was viewed.

The St. Louis Arch is really the Eiffel Tower in reverse. Its legs bow out while the Eiffel legs bow in. But all in all, they both are perfected through proportion and mathematics, while the modern engineering practices of the 1960s (when the Arch was built) allowed it to be constructed with infinitely less detail than the Eiffel Tower. In fact, the Arch’s structure is quite simple and is hidden underneath its sleek stainless steel exterior.

Now imagine that there is no tower or arch thrusting into the sky, but that every building – every single thing in fact – in an entire community is built with design and precision that speaks for itself.

As in the Shaker community in Hancock, Massachusetts on the western edge of the state. The Shakers were an innovative Christian religious sect, and Shaker products including buildings, tools, chairs, furniture etc. were built with simple integrity of form. In other words, they have timeless proportion, which is the essence of all beauty. Studies of beautiful human faces can be mapped out mathematically by proportion.

The circular Round Stone Barn is an example of sublime architecture made not by great internationalist minds like Gustave Eiffel or Eero Saarinen with a historical edge on it, but by religiously fervent people who believed in God’s disdain for waste and ornament.

Just look at that barn. It is extraordinarily beautiful. And how did they arrive at this design?

Through advanced Western thinking developed over millennia beginning with the Ancient Greeks and their world-shaking sense of form defined in their theaters, temples and unmatched figurative sculpture.

Consider the Meetinghouse (church) in the Shaker community at New Lebanon, New York, just 4 miles west of Hancock, which is now a private school and the former Meetinghouse is the library.

This building again shows a passion for simplicity and symmetry with two doors, one for women and the other for men in the segregated, celibate community. It shows an understanding of architectural beauty that is something that never changes, but is always in the mind’s eye whether it be the Shakers, Eiffel or Ictinus and Callicrates, the architects of the Parthenon (built 447BC – 432BC), showing that there always is room to make beauty the pre-eminent ideal.

Even in the lowly foundation of another Shaker building at New Lebanon, the blocks are set in a gloriously preconceived pattern, as if to say that since we are making something anyway, let’s make it wonderful.

Awesome.

(Solution to the riddle: Why did novelist Guy de Maupassant eat lunch at the Eiffel Tower every day even though he despised the structure? Answer: Because it was the one place that he could not see it.)

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