The Scheming Politician Who Won Paris with the Eiffel Tower
No one would think of Paris in the same way.
Gustave Eiffel is famous for building the most widely known structure in the world, the the Eiffel Tower. But, he does not deserve all the credit. When it was constructed, in 1889, the Eiffel Tower was the tallest building ever made. Eiffel could do that, as an accomplished engineer and the owner of a large engineering and construction firm. But, it is the tower’s location in the middle of Paris that accounts for the its lasting notoriety. Eiffel did not have the power to put it there. That was the work of another man.
Eduard Lockroy was the government minister responsible for planning the 1889 Exposition Universelle, an international exhibition of science, industry and the arts in Paris. Lockroy needed to astound the world. He wanted a distinctive centerpiece for the exhibition, one that would capture people’s attention and make them want to come to see it. Much depended on this: the success of the exhibition, and the reputation of France as a leading industrial power and a country to be reckoned with.
But, any decisions Lockroy made about the exposition were bound to be controversial. Exposition coincided with the centennial of the French Revolution. People remained deeply divided over the question of whether the Revolution had been good for the country or a disaster. Lockroy and his government saw the results of the Revolution as a good thing, and they were planning a celebration. There would be political opposition, but the controversy also provided the opportunity for the government to exert power over its political rivals.
Lockroy’s task required cold, clear-eyed political calculation worthy of Machiavelli. He had to weigh carefully the political risks and rewards of each decision. The success of exhibition required a bold, defining gesture, perhaps something never tried before. But, its execution must be flawless. Political enemies would use any misstep to attack Lockroy and his party and attempt to derail the exhibition.
Political Contest Fought with Shovel and Trowel
During the 100 years following the French Revolution. France was divided into three political camps, each clamoring for advantage over the others. On the left of the political spectrum, Republicans want to continue with the democratic reforms that began with the French Revolution. On the extreme right, Monarchists wanted to reverse the effects of the Revolution by reinstating the monarchy and returning the Catholic church to a position of influence. Slightly right of center, Bonapartists wanted a strong national government capable of maintaining order at home and asserting France’s influence abroad.
Political conflict transformed the streets of Paris. The ebb and flow of conflict affected not only the life on the streets, but also the physical structure of the city. Streets and buildings were also transformed for political gain. Given the opportunity, each camp sought to assert themselves by leaving their mark on Paris with shovel and trowel. The Bonapartists had the most extensive impact on the physical structure of Paris during the 19th century, but the Republicans succeeded in transforming Paris more completely, thanks to Lockroy.
Bonapartists were fans of Napoleon Bonaparte, who famously used cannon fire to quiet a rioting mob on the streets of Paris in 1795. Nine years later he seized absolute power and ruled as the first emperor of France until 1814. Then, in 1852, Bonaparte’s nephew, Louis-Napoleon seized power as emperor and ruled the Second Empire of France until the Franco-Prussian War in 1870. Much of Paris was either built or rebuilt during these two periods.
Louis Napoleon intended the Palais Garnier Opera to be the centerpiece of a thoroughly modern Paris. During the Second Empire, Baron Haussmann directed an extensive program of urban modernization in Paris. Haussmann’s unified architecture of cream-colored, stone apartment blocks lining broad boulevards is still the characteristic architectural style of Paris over 150 years later.
The Palais Garnier is embellished with a hodgepodge of architectural elements borrowed from the past — Gothic, Renaissance, and ancient Greece and Rome. Louis-Napoleon wanted to make Paris the capital of the modern world. It was the industrial revolution, the Age of Progress, and a time of dizzying change. However, the concept of “modernity” that was promoted during the Second Empire was firmly rooted in the past.
The opera’s Interior space is organized perfectly to express the public virtues of the Second Empire. The building’s central feature is a grand staircase that connects the main entrance and the theater. The tiered staircase is flanked by balconies all designed to provided a showcase for the display of conspicuous consumption, wealth, and power, by the patrons arriving for an evening’s performance.
In 1870–71 political power shifted to the Monarchists after their Bonapartist and Republican opponents suffered serious setbacks. First, in September 1870, Louis-Napoleon’s defeat and capture on the battlefield of the Franco-Prussian war brought an end to the Second Empire. Then, in the spring of 1871, with Paris still surrounded by the Prussian army, radical Republicans formed a breakaway government in Paris, the Paris Commune, and launched a disastrous revolt against the newly-reorganized French government.
The revolt of the Paris Commune confirmed suspicions, long-held by many on the right, that Republicans would stop at nothing to destroy institutions sacred to France, the Catholic church chief among them. The Commune resulted in the arrest and execution of Catholic devotees, including the archbishop of Paris, and several military officers. It all came to a bloody end when the French army put down the revolt by invading Paris.
The Sacré-Cœur Basilica was built as an act of contrition for the sins of the Paris Commune and the excesses of the Second Empire. Monarchists, who controlled the national government in the years immediately following the war, shared the grief and anger of Catholics for their persecution by the Commune. Government policy was driven by a call to restore “moral order.” And, the government gave its support when church leaders launched a campaign to have Paris atone for its sins by building the Sacré-Cœur Basilica on Montmartre.
Looming over Paris on one of the highest points in the city, the Sacré-Cœur Basilica was intended to be an omnipresent reminder of the judgement that awaits the worldly and corrupt. But, it was also a shrewd tactical move by conservatives in the political battle. Montmartre was a stronghold of the Paris Commune. By building the Sacré-Cœur Basilica there the Catholic church and their political allies on the right claimed Montmartre’s heights for themselves, and they foreclosed the possibility of that the same site would be used to glorify the Paris Commune.
Lockroy Enters the Fray
By the mid-1880s it was the Republicans who were in control of the national government. The government that replaced the Second Empire was known as the Third Republic. At first, the Third Republic was regarded as a temporary arrangement, made necessary so that France could negotiate an end to the war with Prussia.
Many expected that France soon would have a constitutional monarchy. But, the Monarchists dithered in identifying who would become king. Meanwhile, Republican politicians figured out how to make the unwieldy mechanics of the Third Republic government actually work, and they gradually won control.
Édouard Lockroy entered the fray in January, 1886, as the newly-selected Minister of Commerce and Industry. Lockroy had been a journalist before entering politics, and he still regarded the world around him from a bemused, ironic distance. Slightly built and prematurely grey, Lockroy’s demeaner and appearence invited others to regard him as superficial, a political dilettante. Opponents caricatured Lockroy as a mischievous pet monkey, dismissing him as sometimes irritating but ultimately of no consequence. This was a mistake.
Lockroy had the soul and the cunning of a guerilla fighter, which he had been as a young man. Lockroy fought as a volunteer in the Italian war of independence, and he had long experience serving in the political battles that shaped Paris. His political partisanship earned Lockroy several stints in prison.
After returning from Italy, Lockroy worked as a muckraking journalist opposed to the Bonapartist regime during the Second Empire. And, he was a leader in the Paris Commune. Lockroy was first elected to the national legislature in 1873 as a radical Republican representing Paris.
Lockroy’s new role as Minister put the levers of power in his hands for the first time. As Minister of Commerce and Industry he had responsibility for making arrangements for the 1889 Exposition Universelle, including plans for new buildings at the site of the exhibition along the Champs de Mars. Lockroy would use this new influence to make sure that the Republicans would leave a lasting mark on the face of Paris.
Of the effect produced in Battle by strange and unexpected Sights or Sounds — Chapter XIV, Book III in Discourses on the First Decade of Titus by N. Machiavelli
Lockroy borrowed a tactic from Niccolò Machiavelli, political advisor to Italian princes during the Renaissance. It is not known whether Lockroy consulted Machiavelli directly; however Machiavelli’s writings have had an enormous influence on politics over the centuries since his death. He is credited with creating the practice of politics. Of particular interest to Lockroy, Machiavelli wrote about using the element of surprise to gain advantage in a battle. This tactic is referred to today in terms of its intended effect — shock and awe.
With only three years until the exposition opened, things had to move quickly. On May 2, Lockroy announced an open competition for the design of a structure that would be the centerpiece of the exhibition. The guidelines called for a tower 300 meters tall and 125 meters wide at the base. Ten days later, Lockroy appointed a committee to review the entries. The winning design would be announced by the middle of June.
A tower 300 meters — 1000 feet — tall would be an unprecedented achievement. This idea had been bouncing around since the beginning of the industrial revolution, earlier in the 19th century. Projects had been proposed before in England and in the United States, but never attempted. A structure such as this would attract worldwide attention for the exposition, exactly as Lockroy wanted. Moreover, a 1000 foot tower would soar high above Haussmann’s orderly boulevards, reaching higher even than the dome of the Sacré-Cœur Basilica perched atop the peak of Montmartre. But, could it be done?
Eiffel Astounds the World
Eiffel’s proposal was the obvious choice. When Lockroy’s committee met to review the 107 entries received, only a handful could be considered as serious contenders. Even then Eiffel’s entry stood out. Eiffel’s team of engineers had been working on the design for two years, since the date of the exposition was first announced. Their plans and calculations had been reviewed and debated within the engineering community in meetings of the Société des Ingénieurs Civils de France.
Eiffel’s track record inspired confidence that the tower he proposed could be built. Eiffel was recognized as a master of the design and construction of structures out of iron and steel. He had built many large structures, such as railroad bridges and train terminals, all around the world. In recent years, Parisians had seen his work first hand in the form of the iron framework for the Statue of Liberty, which was assembled outside the artist’s workshop near the Parc Monceau in 1885 before it was shipped to New York. Eiffel’s accomplishments earned him the title “Magician of Iron.”
Paris was awestruck. Nothing they had ever seen before could have prepared the people of Paris for the construction of Eiffel’s tower. It happened so fast. Start to finish, construction took only two and a half years. Compare this to the 14 years it took to build the Palais Garnier Opera. Work on the Sacré-Cœur Basilica had been underway for 12 years already when Eiffel started work on his tower, and it would take another 25 years to complete after the tower was done.
The tower was an astounding success. The public loved it. Almost 2 million people either climbed up the tower or rode up in one of its elevators during the 6 months of the exhibition. As Eiffel predicted, the tower’s immense size lent it a pleasing majesty and grace. Most striking, the tower was a completely new thing. Without precedent, it owed nothing to tradition or history — the past. The Eiffel Tower allowed people to see and touch the future and experience the thrill of its promise.
Gustave Eiffel was celebrated widely for his accomplishment. Eiffel never claimed the tower as his own, preferring to refer to is as the “Tour de 300 mètres.” It was Lockroy’s opponents who first called it the Eiffel Tower, hoping that this would sharpen their attacks on the project. In the end, Eiffel’s new public notoriety cost him his business and his career as a builder. Years later, when politicians needed a scapegoat to take the blame for France’s failed Panama Canal project, Eiffel was a convenient target.
Édouard Lockroy got exactly what he wanted. The 1889 Exposition Universelle was a success. The Republicans had prevailed. No one would think of Paris, or of France, in the same way as before. Louis-Napoleon’s “capital of the modern” world shook off her bonds to the past, and she was on the way to becoming capital of the avant garde. The Eiffel Tower was and remains today the first thing that comes to mind when people think of Paris.