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The vulgar tower

Published: July 20, 2012 at 7:13 am
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The artist, author and founder of the Arts & Crafts movement William Morris (1834–1896) was in Paris during the summer of 1889 as a delegate to the International Socialist Working Men's Congress, where he gave one of the key speeches.


This was just a few months after the opening of the new Eiffel Tower as the centre-piece of the 1889 Exposition Universelle world's fair. The tower, the world's tallest man-made structure (at that time) was hugely popular with the public, who formed lengthy queues to visit it each day.

Despite the crowds, Morris spent much of his time in Paris in the tower, painting, sketching, writing and taking many of his meals in its restaurant.

One of the restaurant staff noticed he was a regular visitor and said, "You are certainly impressed with our Tower, monsieur!"

"Impressed?!!" said Morris. "This is the only place in Paris where I can avoid seeing the thing!"

The story

Nowadays, we couldn't imagine Paris sans Eiffel Tower. What would lazy film and TV directors do to instantly tell the viewer we're in 'Gay Paree' if they couldn't stick in a shot of the tower? La Tour Eiffel is one of the most recognisable landmarks in the world, and everyone loves it, right?

It wasn't always like that, though. When the tower design was chosen for the Exposition centrepiece in 1887 there was a huge outcry, particularly from artists, writers and architects who formed the "Committee of 300" (one member for each metre of the Tower's height). These included cultural heavyweights like Charles Gounod, Jules Massenet, Adolphe Bouguereau and Guy de Maupassant. In an open letter denouncing the plan they called it a "Tower of Babel ... Is the city of Paris about to associate itself with the grotesque and mercantile imagination of a machine-maker, irreparably to disfigure and dishonour itself? For the Eiffel Tower, which even commercial America refuses, is, rest assured, a dishonour to Paris. Everybody feels it, everybody says it, everybody is deeply grieved... "

As it was being built, the Times in London called it "that ugly, heavy, costly and useless monstrosity" and that it was "giving more trouble than it will ever give pleasure." But when it opened – a few days late, and with only one fatality during its construction – the public begged to differ. Despite expensive ticket prices the whole project was quickly in profit.

The story above about William Morris is questionable. No lover of big things made of iron, he certainly disliked the tower, calling it "a hellish piece of ugliness" and "a piece of brigandage on the public."


What is rather more certain is that the writer Guy de Maupassant did dine regularly at the tower restaurant to avoid having to gaze upon its "colossal vulgarity." He even gave the tower as one of the reasons why he moved out of Paris soon afterwards. Although he was by then quite mad.


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