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Aesthetics

Iron Arranged in a Very Pretty Pattern

Ah Paris, the city d’amour and a cultural and historical capital of the world. But what makes this city so great? What is so attached to Parisian identity that the two have become virtually inseparable? Why one of the world’s greatest landmarks of course, The Eiffel Tower! If you just asked yourself what a metal structure is doing on an aesthetics blog post, look at this picture…

and tell me you still feel the same way.

The tower is as undeniably beautiful as it is undeniably a French icon, and the two identies have become merged. France makes you think of the Eiffel Tower and the Eiffel Tower makes you think of France. What is it about the Eiffel tower that makes it, well, the Eiffel Tower? After all, the tower is composed primarily of iron, and I’d be willing to wager that few people find simple iron beautiful, in any sense of the word.

not exactly “pretty”…

So the structure itself has little intrinsic value, at least its components do. Perhaps it is the sheer size and quantity of the tower that make it so impressive? Although the Eiffel tower was the tallest structure in the world when it was built in 1889 for the World’s Fair, and held that title for 41 years until the construction of the Chrystler Building, big doesn’t necessarily equal pretty. The Empire State Building (which surpassed the Chrystler Building) is indeed an iconic of New York, but it is no where near as aesthetically pleasing as the Eiffel Tower to  look at.  Even the quantity of material used to build the tower is not that great; if you were to melt the tower down, all the iron could fit into a sphere just 12 meters across. Though I suppose there is a certain beauty in the structural elegance of the design, in the fact that one can make such an imposing and beautiful structure out of so few materials. Gustave Eiffel (the chief engineer behind the project) certainly seemed to think so when he said:

Do not the laws of natural forces always conform to the secret laws of harmony? – Gustave Eiffel

So, in his view at least, the tower was so aesthetically pleasing simply because of the way the natural laws of the universe came together to support such a tall structure with such a minimal amount of materials. I would assume many other math-inclined people would have to agree with this. It is a rather beautiful representation of how mathematical and natural laws can come together, but there is more to it than that. After all, even those without the slightest idea of the complexity of how the structure remains upright can (and do) appreciate the tower for its things other than how it stands upright.

So what is it then that makes the Eiffel tower what it is? Its more than just its engineered design, or the fact that it has symmetry or even the physical form it has. Before it was built a petition was created saying:

“We, writers, painters, sculptors, architects and passionate devotees of the hitherto untouched beauty of Paris, protest with all our strength, with all our indignation in the name of slighted French taste, against the erection…of this useless and monstrous Eiffel Tower … To bring our arguments home, imagine for a moment a giddy, ridiculous tower dominating Paris like a gigantic black smokestack, crushing under its barbaric bulk Notre Dame, the Tour Saint-Jacques, the Louvre, the Dome of les Invalides, the Arc de Triomphe, all of our humiliated monuments will disappear in this ghastly dream. And for twenty years … we shall see stretching like a blot of ink the hateful shadow of the hateful column of bolted sheet metal” – from Wikipedia

Although some of the protesters changed their mind after it was built, many continued on living their days utterly detesting the tower. This implies that it is not necessarily just the physical properties of the tower that make it so widely accepted as “beautiful” today, but also some other, relative values that society has put on the tower today that it didn’t in the 1800’s.

You missed relativism didn’t you?

Regardless of the whys however, the fact remains that the Eiffel Tower stands today as a striking monument that has inspired numerous copies around the world and is a French icon. Whether it’s because of some sort of “prettiness” from the design or the elegance of the physics that let the tower stand or simply because of the history and cultural significance people have attached to it, the Eiffel Tower is a thing of aesthetic beauty.

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