Saturday, March 22, 2008

The Red Tower: Redux

13.03.2008: Serero Architects unveils its design for the extension of the Eiffel Tower top floor. The project will extend the top floor plate of the tower by grafting a high performance carbon Kevlar structure on it. The structure will be temporarily bolted to the slab without requiring any modification of the existing structure. It will expand the usable floor area from 280 m2 to 580m2.

The Mechanical Paradise

There were some artists to whom this mechanical age was more than a context, and very much more than a pretext. They wanted to explore its characteristic images of light, structure, and dynamism as subjects in their work. The most gifted of them in the Ecole de Paris, and still the least appreciated today, was Robert Delaunay (1885-1941). For him, the master-image was the Eiffel Tower, which he viewed with real ecstasy as an ecumenical object, the social condenser of a new age. . . .

[Delaunay] wanted a pictorial speech that was entirely of this century, based on rapid interconnection, changing viewpoints, and an adoration of "good" technology, and the Tower was the supreme practical example of this in the daily life of Paris. His friend and collaborator, the poet Blaise Cendrars, remarked in 1924 that

No formula of art known up to now can pretend to give practical resolution to the Eiffel Tower. Realism shrank it; the old laws of Italian perspective diminished it. The Tower rose over Paris, slender as a hatpin. When we retreated from it, it dominated Paris, stark and perpendicular. When we came close, it tilted and leaned over us. Seen from the first platform, it corkscrewed around its own axis, and seen from the top it collapsed into itself, doing the splits, its neck pulled in . . . .

Delaunay must have painted the Tower thirty times, and he was almost the only artist to paint it at all - although it makes a modest appearance in an oil sketch by Seurat, and crops up now and again in backgrounds of the Douanier Rousseau. The Red Tower, 1911-12 [below], shows how fully Delaunay could realise the sensations of vertigo and visual shuttling that Cendrars described. The Tower is seen, almost literally, as a prophet of the future - its red figure, so reminiscent of a man, ramping among the silvery lead roofs of Paris and the distant puffballs of cloud. That vast grid rising over Paris with the sky reeling through it became his fundamental image of modernity: light seen through structure.

Robert Delaunay (1885-1941) - The Red Tower, 1911-12

The planners of the Paris World's Fair wanted something even more spectacular than the Crystal Palace. But Paxton's triumph could not be capped by another horizontal building, so they decided to go up: to build a tower that would be the tallest manmade object on earth, topping out - before the installation of its present-day radio and TV masts - at 1056 feet high. No doubt a Biblical suggestion was at work, consciously or not. Since the Fair would embrace all nations, its central metaphor should be the Tower of Babel. But the Tower embodied other and socially deeper metaphors. The theme of the Fair was manufacture and transformation, the dynamics of capital rather than simple ownership. It was meant to illustrate the triumph of the present over the past, the victory of industrial over landed wealth that represented the essential economic difference between the Third Republic and the Ancien Regime. What more more brilliant centrepiece for it than a structure that turned its back on the ownership of land - that occupied unowned and previously useless space, the sky itself? In becoming a huge vertical extrusion of a tiny patch of the earth's surface, it would demonstrate the power of process. Anyone could buy land, but only la France moderne could undertake the conquest of the air.

The Fair's commissioners turned to an engineer, not an architect, to design the Tower. This decision was in itself symbolic, and it went against the prestige of Beaux-Arts architects as the official voice of the State; but Gustave Eiffel, who was fifty-seven and at the peak of his career when he took the job, managed to infuse his structure with what now seems to be a singular richness of meaning. Its remote inspiration was the human figure - the Tower imagined as a benevolent colossus, planted with spread legs in the middle of Paris. It also referred to the greatest permanent festive structure of the seventeenth century, Bernini's Fountain of the Four Rivers in the Piazza Navona in Rome, which (like the Tower) was a spike balanced over a void defined by four arches and (like the Fair itself) was an image of ecumenical domination of the four quarters of the world.

Postcard from The World's Fair, Paris, 1889

You could not escape the Tower. It was and is the one structure that can be seen from every point in the city. No metropolis in Europe had even been so visually dominated by a single structure, except Rome by St. Peter's; and even today, Eiffel's spike is more generally visible in its own city than Michelangelo's dome. The Tower became the symbol of Paris overnight, and in doing so, it proclaimed la ville lumiere to be the modernist capital - quite independently of anything else that might be written, composed, produced, or painted there. As such, it was praised by Guillaume Apollonaire, the cosmopolitan poet who had once been a Catholic and imagined, in a tone of mingled irony and delight, the Second Coming of Christ enacted in a new Paris whose centre was the Tower, at the edge of the coming millennium, the twentieth century:

At last you are tired of this old world.
O shepherd Eiffel Tower, the flock of bridges bleats this morning
You are through with living in Greek and Roman antiquity
Here, even the automobiles seem to be ancient
Only religion has remained brand new, religion

Has remained simple as simple as the aerodrome hangars
It's God who dies Friday and rises again on Sunday
It's Christ who climbs in the sky b
etter than any aviator
He holds the world's altitude record
Pupil Christ of the eye
Twentieth pupil of the centuries he knows what he's about,
And the century, become a bird, climbs skywards towards Jesus.

The important thing was that the Tower had a mass audience; millions of people, not the thousands who went to the salons and galleries to look at works of art, were touched by the feeling of a new age that the Eiffel Tower made concrete. It was the herald of a millennium, as the nineteenth century made ready to click over into the twentieth. And in its heights, its structural daring, its then-radical use of industrial materials for the commemorative purposes of the State, it summed up what the ruling classes of Europe conceived the promise of technology to be: Faust's contract, the promise of unlimited power over the world and its wealth.

In 1913, the French writer Charles Peguy remarked that "the world has changed less since the time of Jesus Christ than it has in the last thirty years." He was speaking of all the conditions of Western capitalist society: its idea of itself, its sense of history, its beliefs, pieties, and modes of production - and its art. In Peguy's time, the time of our grandfathers and great-grandfathers, the visual arts had a kind of social importance that they no longer claim today, and they seem to be in a state of utter convulsion. Did cultural turmoil predict social tumult? Many people thought so then; today we are not so sure, but that is because we live at the end of modernism, whereas they were alive at its beginning. Between 1880 and 1930, one of the supreme cultural experiments in the history of the world was enacted in Europe and America. After 1940 it was refined upon, developed here and exploited there, and finally turned into a kind of entropic, institutionalised parody of itself. Many people think the modernist laboratory is now vacant. It has become less an arena for significant experiment and more like a period room in a museum, an historical space that we can enter, look at, but no longer be part of. In art, we are at the end of the modernist era, but this is not - as some critics apparently think - a matter of self-congratulation. What has our culture lost in 1980 that the avant-garde had in 1890? Ebullience, idealism, confidence, the belief that there was plenty of territory to explore, and above all the sense that art, in the most disinterested and noble way, could find the necessary metaphors by which a radically changing culture could be explained to its inhabitants.

The Eiffel Tower under construction, 1887-89

For the French, and for the Europeans in general, the great metaphor of this sense of change - its master-image, the one structure that seemed to gather all the meanings of modernity together - was the Eiffel Tower. The Tower was finished in 1889, as the focal point of the Paris World's Fair. The date of the fair was symbolic. It was the centenary of the French Revolution.

From The Shock of the New by Robert Hughes