In 1889 Paris hosted a World’s Fair to mark the 100-year anniversary of the French Revolution. Three years before, an official competition had been launched to find a suitable centerpiece for the exhibition. Gustave Eiffel’s plan for a 985-foot (300-meter) tall iron tower was selected from among the 107 different projects submitted.
Two chief engineers from Eiffel’s company, Maurice Koechlin and Emile Nouguier, had already been working on an idea for an iron tower since 1884. Their design was based on a large pylon with four columns of latticework girders, separated at the base and coming together at the top. The four columns would be joined together by metal girders at regular intervals.
In order to make the proposed project more acceptable to public opinion, Nouguier and Koechlin turned to the head of the company’s architectural department, Stephen Sauvestre, and asked him to work on the tower’s overall appearance. Sauvestre proposed stonework pedestals to dress the legs, and added decorative arches to link the columns at the first level. He also suggested a bulb-shaped design for the top and various other ornamental decorations, but these were rejected to create the simplified appearance we recognize today.
While Gustave Eiffel believed the structure would symbolize “not only the art of the modern engineer, but also the century of Industry and Science in which we are living,” the proposed tower soon attracted criticism. Many of the country’s leading art figures campaigned against it, calling the structure both “useless and monstrous,” and a “hateful column of bolted sheet metal.”
Many of the protesters, however, changed their minds once the tower was built, and today it is widely considered to be a striking piece of structural art.
When the main work was completed in March 1889, Eiffel led a group of government officials, accompanied by representatives of the press, to the top of the tallest structure in the world. Since the elevators were not yet in operation, the ascent was made by foot, and took over an hour. Here Eiffel unfurled a large Tricolore to the accompaniment of a 25-gun salute.