Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The Race for the Sky Begins.

This is the first building to top out the Great Pyramid.  Here is the Eiffel Tower, in a photo from the 1900 Exposition Universelle in Paris.  It was built 19 years earlier for another Exposition Universelle (1889) held to commemorate the centennial of the French Revolution.  Designed by the engineer Gustave Eiffel, it remained the tallest building in the world until 1928 when the Chrysler Building in New York was completed.

It straddles the Champ de Mars in Paris as a great benevolent inverted Tower of Babel.  A building built to reach the sky that drew people together rather than drive them apart.  Instead of a huge bulk of stone resting upon the earth, it is a tall lean spidery structure that stands lightly, but firmly upon the ground.  It is built out of a new material unavailable to earlier generations, steel.  This is not a material quarried out of the earth like stone.  It is made through industrial processes.  Steel had been around for centuries, but it was very hard to make.  It mostly appeared in small quantities in things like sword blades.  Just a few decades before the Eiffel Tower was built, Bessemer invented a process for making steel inexpensively in huge quantities.  It was now available as a construction material, and the Eiffel Tower was one of the first demonstrations of this new building material.  It was built, not at the command of a ruler, but to commemorate a radical break with a centuries old concept of authority.  Instead of "Our King by the Grace of God," we now have polities built on the idea that to secure the benefits of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness...Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed."

What separates the Modern era from previous ages is the belief that the human condition can change, that the conditions of toil, pain, and submission are not eternal and unchanging after all.   Indeed, the peasant once bound to the soil for generations, now had a say in his own destiny, he was free to travel, his children now had access to education and the professions,  his great grand children now have regular access to things like music and entertainment on demand that were once the pleasures of kings.  Science and technology now regularly use powers once attributed to the gods.  "Why should we fear Jove's thunderbolt, " asked Karl Marx, "when we have a lightning rod?"  The Industrial Revolution transformed daily life for millions of people in a way that had not been seen since the invention of agriculture.

The Modern Era was an age of great expectations.  It was an age that looked forward with great optimism.  These were generations that believed passionately in The Future, and these expectations would drive a lot of the transformations in art and design that we will see.

This belief in The Future is precisely what separates the Modern from the Post Modern.  That sense of all pervasive anticipation is hard for us to imagine now.  "Welcome to the World of Tomorrow!" is a phrase that now makes us smile indulgently.   Fifty to Seventy years ago, people said this phrase in earnest as a declaration of faith.  We no longer believe in The Future, and yet we can't and we won't go back to the PreModern. 


Ruth Hull Chatlien said...

So very insightful—a wonderful essay putting the Eiffel Tower in its historical context.

the Reverend boy said...

I am very happy you have started blogging and look forward to visiting often.

I am in NYC as well, hopefully we can meet one day!

Love your artwork.

Anonymous said...

The tower's structure is actually made of puddle iron, not steel. Otherwise, great post! :-)