Lessons from la Tour Eiffel

 Posted by on Apr 15, 2011  Add comments
Apr 152011

Last week, I was visiting Paris and got the chance to marvel at the Tour Eiffel, one of the world’s most well-known and instantly recognizable structures. I also took the opportunity to learn a bit more about its fascinating history. For example, I learned that the Eiffel Tower is the world’s most visited paid tourist attraction, reaching its 200,000,000th visitor in 2002, and having more than 2.6 million visitors in 2010 alone.

Eiffel Tower

Built between 23 January 1887 and 31 March 1889, the tower was constructed for the 1889 Universal Exhibition that was timed to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the French Revolution. The exhibition committee solicited designs for a “grand tower” and chose Eiffel’s from among the 107 submissions. Eiffel’s design was based on an American design that was never built and on his experience from building metal-trussed bridges, particularly one he built in Portugal over the Douro River. But the tower was almost not started when the committee would agree only to a budget that was 25% of the tower’s projected costs.

Instead, Eiffel struck a deal with the exhibition committee and the city of Paris. He would fund construction of the tower himself in return for 20 years of control of the tower and all the proceeds that it generated. Surprisingly, the first year of operation covered the 7,779,401.39-Franc cost of construction, and the following 19 years made Eiffel and his investors rich men. But before this success was known, Eiffel had to adopt and perfect some revolutionary design and construction techniques to reduce costs.

Fifty engineers and designers created 5,300 drawings of the tower and its 18,038 parts. The parts were manufactured in Eiffel’s workshop by 100 ironworkers, and then the premade and predrilled pieces were assembled onsite by 132 workers using 2.5 million rivets. This was one of the first structures ever built with prefabricated parts and revolutionized construction techniques. The tower stands at 300 meters high, 125 meters wide at the base, weighs 7,300 tons, and presents a load of about 62 psi at the bottom of each pillar.

While in Paris for the Universal Exhibition (World’s Fair) to promote his latest phonograph, Thomas Edison visited the tower in August of 1889 and complemented Eiffel, saying: “the glory of Eiffel is in the magnitude of the conception and the nerve in the execution.” Eiffel actually was neither the architect nor designer of the tower. He was the contractor whose company built it. The architect on the project was Stephen Sauvestre, a name you’ve probably never heard before and will not remember in the future.

Early in its existence, the tower’s unique design was not universally accepted or appreciated. A group of 20-plus leading Parisians called it an “odious column of metal” and called for its immediate removal. If it hadn’t been for the 20-year contract with the city, this may well have been the fate of the tower. But, by 1909, the value of the tower as a landmark and tourist attraction had been well established. In addition, its value as a communications tower was soon proven when it was used to dispatch troops to the front lines in WWI.

But what do all these facts, however interesting, have to do with enterprise architecture? Let’s take a look at four of the lessons we can learn from this world monument.

Lesson 1. Take the time to learn about things that stand the test of time. There are often interesting lessons that can be applied to EA, or at least useful factoids for cocktail party conversation.

Lesson 2. The architect plays a supporting role to the project sponsor. We’ll never be famous for the systems we create, but if they help to provide competitive leadership to our enterprise, we can claim success (although probably not at cocktail parties).

Lesson 3. Look for value beyond the single project. No one, especially the exhibition committee, was looking at the value of the tower beyond the exposition itself. What an undersight! How could you even begin to estimate the value of the Tour Eiffel today? How would you calculate the ROI of the project?

Lesson 4. If all else fails, look for innovative funding mechanisms. As architects, we need to break loose of the single project and look for innovative partnerships to fund initiatives that will deliver value beyond a single project.

So, the next time you’re out sightseeing, go with a new perspective. Who knows what it might lead to?



Mike Rosen

Michael Rosen has more than 20 years technical leadership experience architecting, designing, and developing software products and applications.


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