Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Eco-terrorism alert!
The Eiffel Tower, world's largest garden trellis?

A serious project is under development to plant the Eiffel Tower, with work to begin as early as June if the Paris city council votes its approval, reported Le Figaro newspaper and CNN.

600,000 plants, sacks of growing medium and watering tubes together weighing 378 tons would be attached to the 1073-foot tall structure in a $96 million plan overseen by the Ginger engineering firm, Vinci Construction and the architect Claude Bucher.

Apparently the plants are already being raised in nurseries and a reduced-scale model of the tower has been built over a period of two years in a Paris suburb to test the idea's feasibility. The plants would be left to grow on the tower for four years, to be removed in 2016.

That in a nutshell is what is being reported, and it's hard to know where to start when faced with such monumental decadence, but let's begin at the beginning of the radical idea that urban structures can and should be a garden, which takes us, surprisingly, to Vienna in the mid-1980s and the Hundertwasser Haus, designed by the Viennese artist of the same name.

A piebald ode to the romanticized Teutonic vision of das Leben alternativ (or the counterculture) painted in a bright de Stijl palette, the idiosyncratic Viennese apartment block features a literal roof garden, trees planted in living rooms and undulating floors ("an uneven floor is a melody to the feet"). Both urban folly and provocation, the Hundertwasser Haus was a manifesto celebrating rustic handcraft and whimsical impracticality at a time of slick commercial atria sheathed in polarized glass sheltering rows of ficus trees, the iconic Trump Tower (below, the pink marble and polished brass atrium) being the apex—or nadir—of the trend.

More recently, the Parisian urban eco-gardener Patrick Blanc has been creating "vertical gardens" and gained great notoriety with his 2005 project at the Quai Branly Museum of First Peoples in Paris (below). Blanc, who obviously knows his plants, perfected the system of growing plants in pouches of planting medium irrigated by nutrient-rich water carried by a skein of drip lines.

Spectacularly lush and visually compelling, Blanc's sensuously cascading plant walls have become enormously popular with corporate clients wanting to make an eco-friendly statement with maximum visual impact. They are beautiful and truly stunning... and oh-so trendy. Affixed to a bare wall, as below, these vertical gardens can make a compelling statement and add immeasurable beauty, and quite simply are wonderful and nearly wondrous additions to most urban spaces, period.

But. Ah yes, there is always that "but," and in this case it's a big one: But the Eiffel Tower?

Is this eco- or ego-gardening? What madness possesses people to want to turn one of the most famous engineering feats of the 19th century, the symbol of France, into the world's largest scaffold for plants, which can after all be grown just about anywhere else? Why isn't this massive investment of time and resources being used to create, say, an innovative garden in Paris, instead of disfiguring and possibly weakening a great historical landmark?

Well, these are all rhetorical questions; you certainly know. That particular madness is of course trendiness. Fashion. Cool. Thinking one is right-thinking. And not a little bit of free-floating arrogance and self-referential decadence (BoBo nombrilisme, or "bohemian bourgeoisie navel staring" as it's known here). A corrosive brew indeed, and it is no surprise that this is occurring in Paris, world capital of fashion and when, for the first time, the younger generations have become bored with their past—a true sea change in France's self conception.

It is also proof that the 20th century's mental stupidity (for it is not even worthy of the word mentality) in treating the great monuments of our ancestors with disdain is alive and well and actually thriving. The poster child for that is of course the late Penn Station in Manhattan. In France, it is le feu Les Halles (below), the grandiose, old central market torn down under Pompidou (who suffered from Manhattan envy) to make way for a massive underground metro and suburban-train hub and a shopping mall with—you guessed it—hideously cheap atria lined with ficus trees. The White Hole, it is unaffectionately called here. Inevitably, it was so awful and so badly constructed that it is now being razed and replaced with a trendy new eco-friendly shopping mall, which will carry it along for another 40 years.

Other, lesser desecrations include Daniel Buren's infamous Two Platforms installation of 1986 in the courtyard of the Palais-Royal, home of the Ministry of Culture, and the more recent wrapping of the handsome beaux-arts-meets-art-deco façade of the old Louvre Department Store in aluminum spaghetti à la Cy Twombly, also perpetrated by the Culture ministry when it purchased and renovated the property to serve as an annex.

But Paris hardly stands alone here. A perfect American example of people-who-should-know-better-but-don't is the staff of Metropolitan Museum of Art, which since the late seventies (under go-go Tom Hoving) has seen fit to use its monumental beaux-arts façade as a banner support, even though there are flag poles in the plazas to either side that would be perfect for the purpose. One can only hope that the Met, trapped in 70s æsthetic amber with its pop-art colored banners, tired M® shopping bags and chunky tubular brass handrails, will bring itself into the 21st century responsibly and not plant its celebrated landmark façade but rather reveal and light it properly. (They might also—though no rush as it's only been a century or so now—finally get around to commissioning someone to carve those stacks of limestone piled atop the cornice into something resembling art, seeing as it is an art museum and not that poor.)

As for the Eiffel Tower, it has been used as a billboard for at least two decades now. First it was bathed with colored lights at night, copying the Empire State Building, then it received a dazzling star-like light-show for the millenium which sparkled for the first ten minutes of every hour (truly inspired, but apparently opening Pandora's box), and in 2008 (below) it became a propaganda poster for the ill-fated EU constitution, reduced to the Lisbon treaty. It has also been decorated to promote other such political ventures.

Now it may well become the world's largest trellis frame and most expensive and inefficient "carbon trap," to go with the French government's dubious obsession with the real carbon trap, carbon taxes.

"To the glory of France!"


  1. Agreed, worst idea possible; or at least amongst them!

  2. Oh dahhling what shame that "trendy" is becoming the modus operandi of most! True that we must accept new ideas, new approaches in design to discover the possibilities that have not been seen BUT I agree with you some things are already perfect as they are...where are the creators of the Eiffel Tower's of today?

  3. Indeed and well said! These are major companies, (Vinci is massive) and they could be creating an innovative garden in Paris with all the money and effort they are spending to disfigure this great landmark. The lack of respect and the parasitic opportunism go hand in hand with the lack of vision.

  4. This really a very informative post and it explained well. I really appreciate it.

  5. I think your reviews in this post are too heavily pivoted in preservationism. The sarcasm targets trend, but it undermines the intellectual and philosophical value of contemporary projects. Buren's piece at Palais Royale pays homage to the Roman Ruins discovered in strata beneath Palais Royale, without tearing a giant pit in the center of the 18th century structure to expose those columns and disrupt the aesthetic framing of the courtyard; it allows multiple eras, styles, societies and ways of thinking to exist as they are (or were) in unison, not disruption.

    As far as the Les Halles is concerned, the current installation is quite attractive, and I think, reflects its surroundings well. However, it's so sketchy and is just a breeding ground for punks and pickpockets. But wasn't the original Les Halles just as hard and gritty a place? In its time, it was far from glamourous, which, unfortunately, is how many people now perceive any structure standing from the 18th and 19th centuries France. The new facility coming to Les Halles, I hope, will bring a new sense of community vibrancy and neighborhood back to the sold-out commercial area.... we'll see.

    The green Eiffel Tower project: why waste time wondering how much of a waste it is? The Eiffel tower (which I doubt the government would ever risk harming) only served as a radio tower - its "original", intended purpose - for so long, before it became the monolithic figure of French Progression. The Eiffel Tower is now a platform. So many industries and other projects use fuel and effort to far greater exponents, but without the positive message and spirit of dialogue in Paris public arts and culture project

    The "you should know better mentality" is destructive to the very concept of the dialogue inherent in all acts of art and science. I know you didn't mention this one, but The Centre Pompidou is a wonderful example, in its geographical situation; while, locally, its facade screams out in radical defiance against the surrounding Beaubourg square, the museum's height rises only just above the nearby buildings of Beaubourg and the Marais, just enough to give the vantage of various Paris scenes. However, from Belleville or Montmartre, the Centre seems to blend in with its nearby skyline; it conforms to the aesthetic of Paris, without drawing too much attention to itself, unlike the Eiffel or Montparnasse towers, Montmartre, or La Défence.

    "proper" display is completely relative. Things change. The Met and the Eiffel tower cannot remain in the time when they were originally constructed forever. If we were to uphold the popular view of the Eiffel tower in its time, we'd consider it an eyesore, but now we laud it in its plain, unadorned state. However, I doubt very few people still or ever will look at the EIffel Tower and regard it for its intended purpose, remarking "ah, yes 'tis a marvelously engineered model for the radio tower". Yes, their creators had a certain vision, which should be acknowledged, but that cannot stop the audience and society from interpreting and using it otherwise; such is the nature of humanity. We recreate and re-present to suit our contemporary needs. Nothing is "supposed" to be a certain way.


  6. Thank you for your reply; we certainly appreciate its evident effort but I do disagree on all points.

    First, Buren's installation, despite his professions to the contrary, has nothing to do with Roman-era ruins, and if the Ministry of Culture had been interested in them at all, it could—and should—have created access to them and displayed the artifacts, instead of paving the site over with the massively invasive work of a protégé of the then minister Jack Lang, who was charged by Mitterand to use a huge cultural budget to imprint socialism on France.

    Turn over a rock in France and you will find politics, and the Palais-Royal is no exception. It was all about politics, left vs. right, marking territory, pushing ideologies, and was simply a means the socialists used to stick it to the conservatives (it is after all THE Palais-Royal) and is unique in French history for engendering days of heated debate in the Assemblée nationale, it was so vehemently despised.

    As for Les Halles, you stand virtually alone in admiring it. No one in Paris wanted to save it (even its creators made no protest when its destruction was announced, virtually unheard of in this country); people were only interested in what would replace it. Our atelier has been located nearby for over a decade. I use it almost daily. It is badly designed, poorly constructed, and stylistically banal in the worst sort of 1970s Movenpick highway-rest-stop sort of way.

    Overall planning is incoherent and circulation is appalling, particularly for the various rail connections (the main reason for its existence), and finally the pathetic pavilions ringing the atrium have stood empty for decades. It is a failure of urban planning and an embarrassment to the country that created Beaux-arts city planning, which is obvious as they are now tearing it down.

    Yes, people should know better. It is fundamentally a question of respect: respect for the great achievements of those who came before us. This is a no-brainer; if we do not value our past and know nothing of it, then how are we to know who are we?

    You inadvertently illustrate this point, for you misstate the tower's very raison d'etre and use that error to justify your views. The Eiffel Tower was built for the Paris Exposition of 1889 and the first commercial radio broadcast occurred in Pittsburgh in 1920. In the 1880s, Nicola Tesla, the inventor of radio, was still carrying out foundational experiments with high-frequency alternating current; radio simply didn't exist.

    The Eiffel Tower was above all intended as a symbol of France's technological and engineering prowess and was the first structure to rise taller than the Great Pyramid at Giza. Think about that for a moment.
    The Eiffel Tower certainly deserves more of our respect—respect for ourselves and our achievements—than it deserves to be debased by turning it into an oversized garden trellis.

    I reject the idea that it is "wasting time" to criticize such a wasteful project. And to justify it by stating that even greater waste occurs is frankly beyond me. The budget is massive and could be much better spent creating a new, permanent garden rather than decorating a global monument so as to piggyback on its fame, leaving nothing of permanence. That to me is the definition of decadence.

    There is more than enough space left to create new things, we don't need to deface public monuments to accommodate some flush corporation's media whoring. We don't repaint old pictures, we preserve them. Why then relegate architecture, the "mother of the arts," to second-rate status?

    I believe in the adaptive re-use of older architecture, but with sensitivity and respect. You talk about a "dialogue" with the past, but who exactly is speaking up for the mute past in what is in truth a monologue, driven mostly by money and ego and justified by infinitely elastic relativism?