Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Eiffel on the Hudson 1

Cambridge, February 19, 2013

Both Paris and New York had their iconic monuments designed by the French civil engineer Gustave Eiffel.  Actually, New York beat Paris by five years.  In Paris, of course, is the famous tower named after the engineer himself.  In New York it's really more Bartholdi than Eiffel, the equally famous Statue of Liberty.

The two monuments couldn't be more different, the tower an expression of its technology--where "the medium is the message" as Marshal McLuhan would say--and Liberty a figure where the load-bearing structure plays a hidden (at least from the outside,) deus ex machina role.  Also very different in size, one 1,000 feet tall the other 150 feet to the top of the torch, "only" 300 feet even if you want include Richard Morris Hunt's base.  Still, the question of dimensions is quite interesting, because in the case of the Eiffel Tower, the dimension had to be heroic as a way to test the limits of the technology at the time--size matters, to coin a phrase--while the monumental nature of the Statue of Liberty hinges more on its scale, something like twenty times the dimensions of a human figure.

In any case, the structure of the Statue of Liberty is quite remarkable in its own right, less synthetic but more nuanced than the one in Paris.  Originally Bartholdi had asked Viollet-le-Duc, his former teacher, to design the structure.  Viollet had proposed a massive sand-filled masonry structure to support the copper skin.  But Viollet died and when Eiffel was brought in, he took a completely different approach.  Now the monument really became skin and bones, a much more "organic" project you could say, with a main central pylon of rather beefy steel sections supporting an irregular three-dimensional lightweight truss following the contours of Liberty's body.

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