Rival Parisian Monuments: the Eiffel Tower and Sacré Coeur

by / Friday, 05 July 2013 / Published in Architecture, Book Excerpt, France, History, Paris

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For the millions of tourists who visit the Eiffel Tower every year, the monument is a symbol for Paris itself.

I have been looking up at the tower for so long now that I almost regard it as a familiar friend. And yet every time I glance up, I see something different.

When I was a student in Paris the Eiffel Tower was of little interest to me. I suppose I regarded it snobbishly as a tourist trap, a place to be avoided, like the Champs-Elysées which one learned quickly was disdained by Parisians and was an absolute no-go zone. Even years later when we were on a family holiday in Paris and Rebecca suggested we take David to the top of the Eiffel Tower, I groaned at the prospect.

I was wrong. The Eiffel Tower may be the most popular tourist attraction in the world, but I have come to revere that structure for its proud perseverance. Few of the millions of tourists who visit the Eiffel Tower every year are aware that, immediately after its construction, it was hardly an object of universal adoration.

The Eiffel Tower was erected as the architectural centrepiece for the Paris Exhibition of 1889 to celebrate the centenary of the French Revolution. The great themes of the day were science and engineering. Gustave Eiffel’s tower was, accordingly, designed as a symbol of the unstoppable forces of industry and commerce. The massive iron lattice structure was the physical expression of France’s embrace of modernity. It was the world’s first architectural statement announcing the shock of the new. And many would be shocked – especially Parisians.

Napoleon III was the Eiffel Tower’s godfather. An unlikely figure in French history who lacked the stature of his more illustrious uncle, Napoleon III nonetheless left his mark on Paris as a great moderniser. After seizing power through a coup d’état in 1851, he set out to restore France’s imperial glory and re-establish Paris as the centre of civilisation. His inspiration to rebuild Paris came from an unlikely place: London. Unlike his uncle Napoleon Bonaparte who had dismissed England as a “nation of shopkeepers”, Napoleon III was an unapologetic anglophile. He’d spent many years in exile in England (where he later died, again in exile, and where today he is buried). As a young man in London, Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, as he was then known, looked around him with admiration and envy. In the early 19th century London was a majestic imperial capital. Paris, by contrast, was suffocating in the insalubrious confines of its medieval design. When Louis-Napoleon returned to France to seize his destiny, the attention of the world was fixed not on Paris, but on London. In 1851, London’s Great Exhibition attracted six million visitors – many of whom paid a penny to use a new-fangled invention called a flush toilet.Capture d’écran 2013-07-05 à 12.04.17

Napoleon III was determined to put Paris on the map as a modern world capital. And he was unembarrassed about reshaping Paris in the image of the London he admired for its grand avenues, open public spaces, lush urban parks, and vast gardens à l’anglaise. During the early years of the Second Empire in the 1850s, Paris was quite literally demolished and reconstructed. Roughly 60% of the old medieval city was destroyed. Most of today’s grand Parisian boulevards and wide commercial streets – rue de Rivoli, boulevard Saint-Michel, avenue de l’Opéra – were carved out during the Second Empire. It is often claimed that Napoleon III wanted wide streets so troops and canons could be rapidly deployed against the unruly Parisian mob. That is only partly true. There were other, more compelling, reasons to redesign Paris, including public hygiene. In the mid-19th century the city’s exploding population was increasingly exposed to the dangers of disease in cramped medieval conditions. Victor Hugo’s classic novel Les Misérables painted a graphic portrait the abject poverty and shocking disregard for social justice during that period. In the cholera outbreak of 1832, some 20,000 Parisians perished out of a total population of 650,000. Parisians needed modern sewers and breathing space.

The name most associated with the transformation of Paris – besides Napoleon III – is Georges-Eugène Haussmann. Haussmann was a Protestant from Alsace who was regarded as something of a social climber in Second Empire society. Though known as “baron” Haussmann, he was never ennobled. He was a classic French state fonctionnaire who had reached the somewhat less exalted rank of prefect. Yet his legacy was greater than even he could have imagined. It was Haussmann who oversaw the demolition and reconstruction of Paris, which he reconfigured into the twenty arrondissements that we know today. More famously, he gave his name to the architectural style known as “haussmannien” to describe the familiar six-storey Parisian residential building with a burnished façade and black metallic balconies.

In 1867 the Second Empire was at the pinnacle of its glory. The poet Baudelaire had just published “Les Fleurs du Mal”, the Impressionist movement was about to hit the artistic world in a dazzling burst of colours, and the Bohemian movement would soon emerge in Montmartre cafés like the Chat Noir. Offenbach operettas such as “La Vie Parisienne” were delighting bourgeois audiences while respectable Parisian gentlemen frequented the Folies Bergères and slipped into the city’s bordels to indulge in louche baisers infames and other thrilling sensations on offer. In Parisian high society aristocrats squandered lavish sums to procure the favours of milky-skinned courtesans, the so-called grandes horizontales famous for their exotic sobriquets – La Païva, La Belle Otero, and the English temptress called Cora Pearl.

It was against this backdrop that, in 1867, Napoleon III inaugurated the Paris Exposition Universelle on the Champ de Mars, a five-minute walk from my place in Poodleland. Seldom do I take Oscar and Leo for a walk on the Champ de Maris without thinking of the magnificent expositions erected on the same patch of ground to attract the fascination of the entire world. At the 1867 exposition, the painter Manet unveiled his controversial painting “Un Dejeuner sur l’herbe” and visitors were treated to a demonstration of a marvellous new invention called electricity. The Exposition Universelle of 1867 was a massive success, attracting more than nine million visitors. It was so successful, in fact, that Paris would host no fewer than three more world fairs before the century was out. The 7th arrondissement – my Poodleland neighbourhood – was torn down and rebuilt at least four times from 1867 to 1900 as each new Paris world fair was staged.

Capture d’écran 2013-07-05 à 12.04.58The Exposition Universelle that left the most lasting mark on Paris was the one held in 1889. That event gave birth to the world’s most famous monument: the Eiffel Tower. When the Eiffel Tower was completed that year, the French were being diverted by popular press reports of a particularly gruesome murder known as the “affaire de la malle sanglante” – the case of the “blood-stained trunk”. The sordid killing gripped French public opinion for months, not only because of the shocking facts of the case but also because one of the culprits was a woman. She was Gabrielle Bompard, a cherubic 21-year-old with an alluring combination of infantile innocence and sex kitten looks. Her accomplice was a swindler called Michel Eyraud. Together they plotted to rob a bourgeois Parisian gentleman called Toussaint-Augustin Gouffé, a respected bailiff with solid social connections. Like many Parisian gentlemen of his day, Gouffé was in the habit of venturing out into the night to procure the sexual favours of Parisian prostitutes. That is how he met Gabrielle Bompard. On a hot July evening Bompard lured Gouffé to an apartment just behind the neo-classical Madeleine church. Eyraud was hiding in the flat, lurking near a designated loveseat behind the curtains with a rope attached to a pulley. While Bompard was entrancing the unsuspecting Gouffé with kinky sexual attentions she reached for the rope and slipped it around Gouffé’s neck. Eyraud yanked on it violently. Gouffé shot up into the air and died instantly, dangling from the makeshift gallows like a broken puppet.

Eyraud took Gouffé’s keys and returned to his office in the rue Montmartre to rummage for money and other valuables. He found nothing. Desperate and panicking, he stuffed Gouffé’s body in a large trunk and took it on the train to Lyon where he dumped it near a rural road. Eyraud and Bompard then separated and fled the country in different directions. They were eventually tracked down, arrested, and tried for their ghoulish plot. Eyraud went to the guillotine. Bompard claimed to have been hypnotised by Eyraud before committing the crime. As implausible as that defence would sound today, in the late 19th century hypnotism was a subject of great fascination. It was enough, combined with the fact that Bompard was an innocent-looking woman, to spare her the guillotine. She was sentenced to twenty years hard labour. After her release from prison in 1905, she enjoyed fame and notoriety as the Belle Époque murderess in the “affaire de la malle sanglante”.

Everyone in France was talking about the “Blood-Stained Trunk” murder when the Eiffel Tower was inaugurated in 1889. The tower was controversial from the moment it appeared on the banks of the Seine. Most Parisians despised it. Even as the tower was going up, Parisian artists and intellectuals petitioned the French government to put a stop to the eyesore protruding grotesquely into the Parisian sky like a metallic Cyclops. Guy de Maupassant and other French writers denounced the Eiffel Tower as a “gigantic black smokestack”. Their only consolation was the knowledge that the Eiffel Tower was to be dismantled thirty years later in 1919.

That didn’t happen, of course. The Eiffel Tower was unexpectedly saved by a new invention called the radio. After the First World War when radio took off, high towers were needed as radio frequency transmitters. The Eiffel Tower, standing more than 1,000 feet high in the 7th arrondissement, was fit for purpose. So the demolition plan was dropped. The zeitgeist was also on the tower’s side. The Roaring Twenties were much more favourably disposed than the Belle Époque had been towards the Gustave Eiffel’s iron structure. The post-First World War years were marked by bold artistic movements – constructivism, Dadaism, Cubism, and Art Deco – heralding the modern era. The Eiffel Tower had been the harbinger of this new modernity. Once detested as a grotesque monstrosity, in the 1920s – while T.S. Eliot, James Joyce, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and an entire “lost” generation were converging on Paris – the Eiffel Tower was transformed into a symbol of the Paris of modern myth.

The fact that the Eiffel Tower had been built to celebrate the French Revolution has today been largely forgotten. Yet the connection was profoundly significant in the late 19th century. Like the French Revolution of 1789, a century later the young Third Republic marked a rupture with the past – notably with France’s conservative Catholic culture. The Jacobines who triumphed after the French Revolution had outlawed the Catholic religion. One hundred years later the Eiffel Tower was an architectural tribute to this same republican spirit of scientific secularism. The Eiffel Tower, in a word, was a symbol of reason.

If the Eiffel Tower is much more than a tourist attraction, Sacré Coeur is much more than a Catholic basilica. When I’m on the motorway heading into the city and Paris suddenly comes into view, my eyes dart back and forth from the Eiffel Tower to Sacré Coeur. I feel caught in a philosophical dilemma, as if obliged to take sides, yet drawn mysteriously to the extraordinary symbolic power of each structure.

Sacré Coeur was constructed as a spiritual antidote to the excesses of rationalism symbolised by the Eiffel Tower. Many of the Eiffel Tower’s earliest critics, in fact, were squarely in the camp of the Catholic Church. First among them was Pope Pius IX, an outspoken castigator of all things modern who decreed the dogma of Papal Infallibility. When Pius IX was celebrating his Silver Jubilee in 1871, France had just been defeated in the Franco-Prussian War. Napoleon III was fleeing into exile in England as the Second Empire collapsed. The French parliament hastily convened in Versailles and, finding piety in panic, voted in favour of public prayers for divine mercy. Thus the Catholic faith was resurrected, briefly, in the shattered souls of the defeated French nation. France needed to be rebuilt; its sins of pride required redemption. The symbol of that national expatiation came in the form of a magnificent Catholic basilica: Sacré Coeur. It was deliberately built high atop the butte Montmartre – closer to God, so to speak – to establish Catholic pre-eminence over the sinful worldliness of the French capital below.

Sacré Coeur wasn’t completed until 1914, the year the First World War broke out, and wasn’t consecrated until after the war in 1919 when world leaders were convening in Versailles. Ironically, Sacré Coeur was inaugurated the same year the Eiffel Tower was supposed to be dismantled. Instead, both structures remained standing – the Eiffel Tower a tribute to the modern project of the French Republic, Sacré Coeur a Romano-Byzantine tribute to France’s Catholic soul.

I have learned, slowly over time, to accommodate both the Eiffel Tower and Sacré Coeur into my Parisian life without taking sides. Gustave Eiffel’s tower, it is true, has enjoyed the special affection of proximity in my Poodleland neighbourhood. It is always present, faithful, benignly watching over me as I meander through the 7th arrondissement in its shadow. Sometimes when I look up, the Eiffel Tower seems crestfallen and melancholic; at other times it looks robust and triumphant. I project my moods onto the tower. And like a faithful friend, it never disappoints or abandons me. The Sacré Coeur is a more mysterious presence. I can’t see the basilica merely by looking up. Though its tulip-bulb domes suddenly comes into view in the distance, sometimes for only a few fleeting seconds, at the end of a long boulevard. I now anticipate the precise vantage points where I can briefly glimpse the Sacré Coeur dome – from the Invalides esplanade, near the Palais Bourbon, and crossing over the Concorde bridge to the Tuileries.

There are rare places in Poodleland where one can look up and catch sight of both the Eiffel Tower and the Sacré Coeur at the same instant. These are magical locations. I know these spots almost instinctively. Sometimes when strolling through Poodleland with Oscar and Leo, I go out of my way just to stand at one of these special points of convergence. And I look up, in both directions, with awe and wonder.

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