Unless you are a structural engineer or a historian, the Eiffel Tower seems little more than one of France’s most-iconic monuments — and a lovely spot to dine with your wife (if you can afford the eating at the Jules Verne). But for school reformers, how its builder brought it to being — and how it left its mark on engineering and culture — offers some lessons on the kind of dynamic minds and path-breaking thinking we need for the reform of American public education.
At the time Gustave Eiffel began conceptualizing the tower in 1884, constructing high-rise structures in which people could occupy for at least some time had only begun to move from ideas to reality. The first real high-standing structure was the Oriel Chambers in Liverpool, which was built in 1864, only stood five stories tall. The Home Insurance building in Chicago — completed a year after Eiffel began pushing the French government to support his plan — only stood 10 stories; the Statue of Liberty (fashioned by Eiffel’s fellow Frenchmen Pierre-Auguste Bartholdi) would come after. The tallest of them all, the Washington Monument, stood just 555 feet — and it took more than 36 years to move from conception to completion.
Few thought that anything taller than those edifices could ever be built. As Jill Jonnes points out in Eiffel’s Tower: The Thrilling Story Behind Paris’s Beloved Monument and the Extraordinary World’s Fair That Introduced It, engineers such as Richard Trevithick and bridge-building firm Clarke & Reeves tossed around and attempted similar efforts at building 1,000-ft high structures. None had made it. Even fewer saw them as being either beautiful, valuable or useful. After all, in many cities, the high buildings would dwarf over existing structures of civic pride; a bunch of them would create shadows that (in theory) dim out the sunlight and get rid of public spaces. Particularly in a city like Paris — which had already gone though a wrenching round of city planning courtesy of Georges-Eugène, 1st Baron Haussmann — the idea would not be well-received by those who like to keep the status quo ante.
It took the plans by the French government to host the Exposition Universelle in 1889 to actually spur a challenge to that thinking — and it took Eiffel to take advantage of that opportunity. A native of Dijon who was landed in the bridge-building business after a job in one of his relative’s vinegar works fell through, Eiffel made his bones by successfully erecting a bridge in Bordeaux even as his colleagues quit working on the project. Eiffel had the combination of daring, tenacity, thoughtfulness, discipline and opportunistic drive most of his contemporaries lacked in spades. He was also brave, even once rescuing one of his riveters from drowning in a river. And by 1884, those qualities made Eiffel a titan among his peers. His firm built what was at the time the world’s highest railway bridge (in Garabit, France); erected bridges in Vietnam and what was then the developing world; built train stations in Hungary; and had placed his stamp on America’s Statue of Liberty itself by crafting the internal skeleton that held together the copper skin of the colossus.
Eiffel understood that the French government to make a bold statement on behalf of democratic republicanism in what would become the twilight of European and Asian monarchies. He knew that the nation needed to rebuild a reputation tarnished by its defeat 14 years earlier in the Franco-Prussian War. He realized that French wanted to prove that its great minds were as capable anyone from America. He also knew that the technology was already available to make a thousand foot tall tower possible: Thanks to the work of Elisha Gray Otis, elevators could carry hundreds up and down buildings safely and efficiently. The engineering work Eiffel did on the Statue of Liberty, along with the burgeoning architectural efforts of William LeBaron Jenny and Louis Sullivan, also paved the way for sky-high construction. And the work of Andrew Carnegie and Henry Clay Frick in developing processes that made steel production cheap and efficient meant that a sturdy tower of great height could be built.
Eiffel got together a team of engineers and architects at his firm — Emile Nouguier, Maurice Koechlin, and Stephen Sauvestre — to begin sketching out the design and engineering for a thousand foot tall metal tower. Then Eiffel began publicly and privately lobbying for its construction and inclusion in the world’s fair. By 1886, Eiffel had the support to make the tower a reality. Then the real challenges began. The nation’s architects, never fans of engineers to start, were outraged that the shining jewel of the world’s fair was being put together by someone they considered a mere bridge builder. They lobbied for their own plans (including a thousand-foot column with a searchlight) and lambasted Eiffel’s own. Then the French government, which originally planned to pony up the full cost, agreed to only cover a third of its $1 million cost. Eiffel solved that problem by raising the rest of the funds on its own and bearing the engineering and designing costs of the project.
Then came more foes of the tower. Politicians, notably future French President Georges Clemenceau and Pierre Tirard, managed to delay the signing of the contract with Eiffel to build the tower after declaring that the spare, minimalist tower, more scaffolding that building, was “anti-artistic, contrary to French genius… a project more in character with America”. The came another problem: A French aristocrat, along with one of her neighbors, sued the French government to prevent construction of the tower; they argued that the tower could collapse on their properties and could serve as a giant lightning rod for decades after the fair was completed. Eiffel solved those problems by indemnifying the French government against the lawsuits and any possible structural collapse. As a result, French officials official signed the contract, allowing Eiffel to go ahead with construction.
But Eiffel’s greatest challenge laid with building elevators that could reach the heights and do so safely. The tower needed three sets of elevator banks — two of which needed to go up each of the curved legs of the tower from the ground to the second platform 377 feet above ground — and the French government, which controlled the contracts for the elevators, preferred that they were developed by native companies. But the best elevator maker was the elevator firm Elisha Gray Otis founded years ago, and even it hadn’t built elevators to go that far up. The French government did its best to rebuff Otis’ bid, but eventually relented when no one else would bid for the work. It still didn’t go smoothly, with Eiffel and Otis executives mutually frustrated at one another over their respective perfectionism (including Eiffel’s changes to the interior of the tower’s legs and Otis’ unwillingness to go along with building elevators according to French government demands). But Eiffel learned to go with Otis’ plans (and even accept cost overruns on that part of the project) because he knew it was more important to get the tower completed safely and on time than following his ego (or that of the French government).
Eiffel was a master of public relations. As France’s leading thinkers and artists — including Alexander Dumas fils and Paul Planat of the country’s leading architectural rag — attacked the tower, Eiffel held interviews with media players attacking his foes for remaining stuck behind the times and being unwilling to do anything that would advance France among the world beyond a status as “amusing people”. He also hired a photographer to document its construction, encouraged people to visit the site and watch the tower take shape, brought reporters and other dignitaries up to the unfinished structure to experience the dizzying heights, and eventually struck a deal with one of the country’s leading publications, Le Figaro, to place an office in the tower and publish a special edition for the world’s fair. Eiffel was also a master of the moment: When workers on the tower, demanding more money, threatened to stop work; he threatened to ditch them to the proverbial curb. They showed up for work and did their jobs.
What Eiffel wrought was a masterpiece of engineering and architecture. When it opened in 1889, it easily surpassed the Washington Monument as the world’s tallest structure — and would hold that title until the Chrysler Building overtook it four decades later. Besides dazzling the crowds at the Exposition Universelle (and annoying a generation of Parisians who would have rather seen it never be built), it began the race to build taller buildings that would maximize space and spur more people to move into cities. By 1891, Sullivan built the Wainwright Building in St. Louis, which would serve as the prototype of the modern office tower; the Flatiron Building and the Metropolitan Life tower would soon follow. The Eiffel Tower’s spare design would also help architects break with the neoclassic past of the time and develop new styles, and spur generations of industrial designers. Without the tower, there would be no Art Deco of Rockefeller Center and the Chrysler Building, no streamline of the DeSoto Airflow and the 20th Century Limited, no stark power of the Guggenheim Museum or the San Francisco Bridge, and no sleek design of the iPhone or the BlackBerry. The tower even inspired the entertainment and amusement industries. Three years after the tower opened, George Washington Ferris would beat out Eiffel to build the very first Ferris Wheel for the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago; every child riding a Ferris wheel this spring and summer (and watching a blockbuster at night) can thank Eiffel for their entertainment.
But what makes the tower special is what Gustave Eiffel brought to the table. He understood the challenges that France needed to overcome, imagineered a solution, put energy and drive into making it a reality, and approaching the challenge with both missionary zeal and disciplined thinking. He also brought strong management skills to the table, bringing together talented men to the fore, using persuasion (gentle and otherwise), and orchestrating public relations campaigns that overcame the opposition of status quo defenders. And he broke free of the past, forcefully articulating that it was time for new approaches to architecture and engineering.
It is the same combination of skills that school reformers will need in transforming American public education today.
As Eiffel had to do in the 1880s, reformers must stare down teachers unions, ed schools and other defenders of the status quo who insist on clinging to a vision of public education that has outlasted Horace Mann and John Dewey. Traditional public education probably didn’t work even in an age in which education wasn’t critical to economic survival; it is definitely a failure in a knowledge-based economy in which strong math and reading skills are even critical for auto repair work. With concepts such as lower class sizes proven to be ineffective — and fiscally unsustainable — the need for using the Internet to provide every child with a high-quality teacher is critical. And with America becoming a majority-minority nation, racial- and gender-based achievement gaps are both unacceptable morally and from the standpoint of maintaining the nation’s prosperity.
The challenges — which come at the cost of 150 kids dropping out every hour — are not insurmountable. But as the American Enterprise Institute and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce succinctly laid out yesterday in their report on the importance of school reform in spurring the science and technology sectors, it mean a clean break with the past. Scale can no longer be a fetish. There will be a need for a thousand different solutions working together (including even DIY schools). Parents and caregivers must be the kings and lead consumers in education. And we must embrace the moral, civil right and practical need for giving every child a high-quality education.
It will also take all hands to make it happen. In particular, we need visionary men who also have strong management skills, the ability to pull together ideas and technology, and political savvy to beat back defenders of the status quo who still have their (increasingly slipping) influence on how traditional public schools mis-educate children. We already have had the Joel Kleins, the Wendy Kopps and (to a lesser extent) the Michelle Rhees. But, as we have seen last week with the ouster of Cathie Black as New York City schools chancellor, there aren’t enough of them. And with the challenges ahead, we will need more than one Teach For America to expand the pipeline of talent.
So the school reform movement must developing new alternative pipelines into education, reaching beyond ed schools and central offices for talented minds. It must also reach into classrooms and elevating teachers who are ready and willing to cast the Randi Weingartens and Diane Ravitches into the ashbins of history. And it must grab talents who are already out there preaching in the wilderness — including Parent Power activists — and put them into places where they can further the goal of building cultures of genius for all children. At the same time, it is critical for reformers to also glean lessons from how Eiffel approached challenges — including those from traditionalists who oppose reform, have nothing better to offer, and simply want to stay comfortable in the past at the expense of children.
We need Gustave Eiffels for school reform. And their success will mean every child succeeds in school and in life.