By The Metric Maven
One day while discussing architecture and engineering with Sven, the subject gravitated to Gustave Eiffel (1832-1923), and his iconic tower in Paris. Sven pointed out that The Eiffel Tower is generally called by that name here in the US, but elsewhere was originally known as the 300 Meter Tower. I had no idea. The tower itself was so reviled by the art establishment of the time in Paris that they created “The Committee of Three Hundred,” which symbolically had one member for each meter of the egregious tower’s height. Like any good committee they created a petition which asserted (Wikipedia):
“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”
One had no trouble detecting their displeasure at this creation. It is strangely ironic that the tower had not yet been constructed, and so the artists were all judging from drawings. Eiffel responded by comparing his work with that of the Egyptian pyramids. There was more irony to be found with other people who did more than compare their ideas to the pyramid, but asserted it was the basis for a sacred measure. Charles Piazzi Smyth (1819-1900) was not one to settle for mere similarity. He traveled to Egypt and took measurements of the pyramid, from which he derived the pyramid inch. The pyramid also allowed for the derivation of the pyramid pint and a pyramid temperature scale. The pyramid inch was in C.P. Smyth’s view handed down to us by God himself. The introduction of the metric system in to Britain would therefore be unthinkable. C.P. Smyth continued his anti-metric activities throughout much of his life. He was also one of the Vice Presidents of the International Institute for Preserving and Perfecting Anglo-Saxon Weights and Measures.
The President of this organization was American engineer Charles Latimer (1827-1888). He also had a problem with Gustave Eiffel, and did not like one of his creations: The Statue of Liberty. In a bimonthly publication called the International Standard they state: “There is only one thing we do not like about the statue: We prefer a statue of liberty measured in good earth-commensurable Anglo-Saxon inches, not in French millimeters, the result of caprice…” This statement was quoted in part five of the newspaper series Everyday Guide to the Metric System published in the late 1970s.
Eiffel’s works were criticized using the metric system in France (The Committee of Three Hundred) and in the US because they were built with the metric system. The more things change the more they remain the same. The World Trade Center twin towers were described by Norman Mailer as two fangs rising up into the New York skyline. They did not fit, he argued, within the wondrous architecture and beautiful skyline which surrounded them. They were a blight on Manhattan. Building One had an antenna which protruded 526 meters from the ground, and building two was 415 meters in height. Very long fangs indeed. The criticisms of the past were long forgotten following September 11, 2001 when they were both destroyed by terrorists.
The discussion of a replacement for the World Trade Center buildings has been politically heated, and took considerable time to begin. The replacement is called One World Trade Center and is scheduled to open in 2014. I was chagrined when I found out its architectural height is 1776 feet. It was like the Eiffel Tower (excuse me the 300 meter tower) and The Statue of Liberty all over again. Measurement units tied to cultural identity, which enforce cultural intransigence concerning the metric system. Denver cannot help being The Mile High City (it was originally the Queen City), nor Colorado being The Kilometer High State, but we could have chosen a different architectural manner to express our “Americaness” other than something as anachronistic as a height in feet, tied to a year associated with the birth of the US. We had a choice, and once again we chose to memorialize the past with anachronistic measure. Will we ever again choose the future?
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