Gustav Eiffel is Back in the News (Sort Of)
I just ran across an article from Canada's Globe and Mail about efforts to fund and build a major new work by Jeff Koons, the American "post-modernist" sculptor. It's intended, as I understand it, to be a memorial to the victims of the Bataclan assault in 2015...and it's certainly become controversial. The motivation is pure enough -- it's seen as a tribute between friends just as France's gift of the Statue of Liberty was in 1886 , an act of recognition and remembrance from Americans to their French allies. The mayor of Paris says the sculpture will "bear witness to the irrevocable attachment between our capital and the United States."
Still, some people don't like the fact that France will have to bear a significant part of the cost of construction. Others are mad that it will be placed in a part of Paris that's not really that close to the Bataclan club where the attack took place. And inevitably, some people plainly just do not like the modernism and strangeness of Koons's sculpture. So a group of artists and intellectuals have mobilized to write letters opposing the project.
I was really struck, though, by the historical analogy Russell Smith recalled in writing about this new controversy. In his view, it's just like what happened when Gustav Eiffel proposed to build his "tasteless" tower for the 1889 World's Fair in Paris. As Smith points out,
French cultural figures are very good at this sort of passionate open letter defending the capital's cultural integrity. They wrote a very similar one about a very ugly structure about to be erected around 130 years ago. The city had proposed allowing an engineer to build a giant metal tower composed of nothing but beams and rivets, as a display of new structural techniques, on a parade ground next to Napoleon's veterans' hospital on the left bank. This bristling and unadorned tower, the very essence of industrialism, was to soar 81 storeys into the air. The 300 signatories to the letter included the writer Maupassant, the painter Bouguereau and the composer Massenet, and they derided the proposed tower as "useless and monstrous … a gigantic black smokestack."
Now, whether or not you agree on the aesthetic merits of the Eiffel Tower itself, there can hardly be any argument about how it's become the one, enduring, global symbol of the city of Paris. I personally think it's remarkably beautiful -- and I don't believe it's because I'm brainwashed by all the romantic postcard images or the dinner cruises Karen and I have taken down the Seine when all the lights on the Tower are glittering. No, I see it from an engineer's point of view, and I marvel at the complexity of the structural details and the graceful lace-like quality of the ironwork.
But before that "Tasteless Tower", Eiffel was busy in the Auvergne
By the late 1800s, Gustave Eiffel was a busy and well-known engineer, with projects not just in France but across Europe and as far away as Vietnam, Peru, Bolivia, Mexico and Turkey. His company managed the construction of an astonishing variety of train stations, grand galleries, and bridges all over the world. And while we all know something about a certain Tower in Paris, one of his most famous projects brought him to the deep heart of France five years before the Tower opened.
Gustav Eiffel in 1888 (Source: Public Domain photo by Nadar via Wikimedia Commons)
The Viaduc de Garabit was actually the idea of a bridge engineer named Léon Boyer, an interesting character in his own right who specialized in designing solutions for some of the most difficult spans in France and who ended up as head of the Panama Canal project until he died of yellow fever three months after his arrival.
Boyer’s idea was to build a bridge over the Truyère, a river running 100 miles through the Massif Central. Getting a train over the river’s deep gorges was a logistical nightmare, and Boyer rejected the traditional approach (winding the line back and forth down to the level of the Truyère before running it across a flat bridge) in favor of something breathtakingly bold: He would get Eiffel to build the world’s highest viaduct.
It’s in the execution, though, where Eiffel’s genius in metalwork is apparent. Seen from the road, it’s hard to believe this lacy strand of red metal could support the weight of a freight train – but it does! The rail line hangs 312 feet above the river’s surface (it used to be 400 feet, but the river level rose as it pooled into a lake when the dam at Grandval was built in 1959). Its 3,200 tons of forged iron and steel are supported by 719,000 cubic feet of masonry.
For Eiffel, a stepping stone to bigger projects
Although Eiffel had already done many important projects (including the interior support structure for the Statue of Liberty), it’s the Viaduc de Garabit that brought his name to much broader attention and set him up for the opportunity to build his Tower for the Universal Exposition in Paris in 1889, opening five years after the completion of this viaduct in 1884. When the bridge opened completely in 1888, trains could go all the way from Paris to Béziers in the southwest of France.
There are plenty of other reasons to visit this corner of France. It’s an easy drive from the Viaduc to the beautiful medieval village of St. Flour and to the ghostly ruins of the chateau at Alleuze. At Chaudes-Aigues, therapeutic waters work their way from volcanic sources to the surface still at 1130 to 1800 Fahrenheit (450 to 820 C). The lake around the Grandval dam itself is a hugely popular recreational area for boating and swimming, and the forests along the river make for memorably scenic walking, cycling, and horseback-riding.
But be sure to see the Viaduc before you leave. The collaboration between Boyer and Eiffel (“a visionary engineer and the magician of iron”) has been nominated for consideration as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but even without that designation it’s a worthwhile destination in one of the most beautiful corners of France.
Eiffel's OTHER work in the Deep Heart of France
And the Viaduc was not the first time Eiffel was active in central France -- he was here long before even that. As I drove the country roads along the great gorges of the Sioule river somewhat further north in the Auvergne, I caught a glimpse of a graceful dark line appearing from the trees on one side of the river and shooting across to a point high on the valley wall on the other side.
This, as it turns out, is the Viaduct de Rouzat. Eiffel et Compagnie built this – the first of its type that he had undertaken – to carry a railroad line high above the gorge. It’s 130 meters long, and he did it in 1869 – a full 15 years before the structure at Garabit, and 20 years before the Eiffel Tower!
In fact, he had only been in business for himself for two years when his firm got the commission to help complete a major rail line – la ligne de Commentry à Gannat. This was an ambitious project, intended to make the long-distance connection from east to west, from Lyon to Bordeaux, so the segment entrusted to Eiffel was particularly important.
The bigger project didn’t go well. There were too many areas of rough terrain, too many corporate competitors involved, too much focus on getting one segment done at the expense of another. In the end, it took almost 20 years before a train could make a complete journey along the line.
Eiffel’s work went as planned, though, and the Viaduct de Rouzat is instantly recognizable as one of his projects. Like his other structures, this one is functional above everything else – yet there is grace in the ironwork and in the massive masonry pillars, a lacing together of pieces that make it as artistic as it is functional.
And it’s not the only work Eiffel did on this line – a little further up the road along the Sioule you’ll find the Viaduct de Neuvial, also completed in 1869. Its ironwork is painted white, barely visible through the trees in the summertime, but unmistakably also in the style of Eiffel.
The thing that struck me most as I visited both these sites is how remote they are. People riding on the trains across these bridges can’t see the structures beneath them – and even if they could, they’d more likely be looking in awe at the deep green valley and the riverbed below. And these are not really tourist attractions at all; they must be searched out, reached on gravel roads that are only wide enough in places for one car to pass, and when you do find them they are only fleetingly visible among the trees.
Tourists do see them, though. The Gorges of the Sioule are two-star attractions in the Michelin guide, and for good reason. This is one of the best examples of an environement sauvage in the deep heart of France, officially classified as a “Natural Zone of Interest” for ecology, flora and fauna. In practical terms, that means this is one of the most attractive regions in France for fishing, bicycling, hiking and especially canoeing. (See a very nice article on a family outing in this area here.)
Nothing was happening on that scale, though, when Gustav Eiffel’s team came here in the 1860s. For me, these two viaducts are perfect examples of Eiffel’s lifelong obsession with proving that practical considerations do not have to mean compromise on the aesthetic quality of a structure.
That obsession culminated, of course, in the work he did for the Statue of Liberty and the Eiffel Tower – but it’s pleasing to stop along the road deep in these gorges and contemplate what it means in this out-of-the-way little paradise!
Have you seen any of Gustav Eiffel's work outside of Paris and New York? Does it have the same appeal for you as that famous Tower? Or do you have another favorite spot that is off the beaten path for tourists in France? Please share what you know in the comments section below -- and do take a second to share this post with someone else who's interested in French history and travel. Thanks!