Does the Eiffel Tower Qualify
as a Piece of Architecture?

In this week’s reading, Roland Barthes compares the functional- or use value of the Eiffel Tower with its symbolic value. He explains the latter thus: “The tower attracts meaning… for all lovers of signification, it plays a glamorous part, that of a pure signifier, i.e., of a form in which men unceasingly put meaning (which they extract at will from their knowledge, their dreams, their history).” Barthes argues that, even though Gustave Eiffel wrote long explanations of possible uses for the tower, the tower is in fact an utterly “useless monument” and that this is actually a good thing: “in order to satisfy this great oneiric function (that of being a pure signifier)…the Tower must escape reason.”
The second important “function” of the tower is that it allows everyone—the Parisian, the visitor, the common person on the street—to rise to the bird’s eye view and gain a “structural” understanding of the city of Paris. It allows us to “transcend sensation” and “read (the city)” in a manner similar to that described by Victor Hugo in Notre-Dame de Paris. This structural reading—the connection of places as they are experienced on ground level to the same places as objects on a kind of map—allows/forces the visitor to think critically. It gives the visitor a sense of agency and “initiates” him or her to the city itself.
These two functions—(i) the symbolic function and (ii) the function of the tower as an instigator of a new critical understanding of one’s place in the city—are deeply architectural characteristics. But are they enough for the tower to qualify as a piece of Architecture? Or is Architecture, as many at the GSD will argue, more about cost, comfort, convenience, utility, functionality, and other practical concerns? And if it is the former (i.e. Architecture’s symbolic function and Architecture’s role as a mediator of society and the way we think and interact), then can we do away with the practical concerns in Architectural discourse, concerns which are obviously important in certain building types, but are not worthy of discussion when we talk about Architecture as a discipline? 


  1. I believe that Hegel's definition of architecture from a pseudo-mystical point of view, was that the original conception of architecture was the monolith, a large rock or something else to which there was no interior. No space. No function. The purpose of the monolith/monument was to endure, rather than to shelter, as a symbol for the people who gathered around it. And although I admit I am condensing this argument, we all know that definitions of architecture as well as the profession and practice itself has evolved since the days of early man and even later men like Hegel.

    However, as we were reminded again and again by Kipnis: Any conversation that can devolve into definitions will. So let's just say that the Eiffel Tower is architecture (call it a house even -- isn't there an apartment up there?). Does it not produce effects that are endemic to architecture and irreproducible by any other medium but architecture? Whatever the intentions of the project were, what it achieved was to create Parisian ground (pyramid typology) above all other Parisian ground. At such a distance it created a fictive overview of the city below, effectively, as you state, reframing the way in which Parisians view their city and themselves. I am projecting here my own reading of the tower, but again whether or not the building is Architecture, Eiffel and his workers designed and erected something that temporarily creates an illusory narrative that we are small and scurry like ants no matter where we sit and how much a croissant will cost you. Isn't that nice?

  2. ** Which is not to say that all the technics are not important. Holy shit are technical details and everything else important, worth knowing, and definitely worth discussing. That's what keeps the whole illusion together in the first place. And depending on your political persuasion (but especially Marxist) the illusion is a product of labors and people that, for an architect to coordinate fully must understand intimately, even though it hurts sometimes.

  3. Ah, very profound, Patrick. Did you mean the "cube typology" even though it looks like a pyramid. It functions like the cube because it destabilizes and recreates Parisian ground. Ahh, definitions again. Sorry.

    Btw, we had to write a manifesto for class. We had to side with either Benjamin or Adorno. Of course you cant just be one but that was the idea of the assignment. I sided with Benjamin and against Adorno/Kipnis. I'll put it up soon. I would love to get your reaction.