In his celebrated 1964 essay on the Eiffel Tower, the French philosopher, literary theorist, semiotician, and dissector of myths Roland Barthes wrote that the 986-foot-tall landmark is “present to the entire world ... as a universal symbol of Paris ... [and] the major sign of a people and of a place.” Yet what people might not know is that this “empty monument,” as Barthes called it, in fact hosts several ancillary structures.
Along with the panoramic restaurant on the second of the tower’s three levels are three substantial buildings and four elevator shelters set within the flare of the piers of the 54,000-square-foot first level. It is these lowest-level structures that the City of Paris (the tower’s owner) and the Sociéte d’Exploitation de la Tour Eiffel (SETE, its operator) now hope to bring to the public’s attention thanks to a five-year, €30-million ($38-million) makeover by local architecture firm Moatti-Rivière.
This is the first significant renovation of the tower’s main floor in more than 30 years. The original belle-époque buildings disappeared in the 1930s, and their successors were replaced in the early 1980s by orthogonal mirror-glass boxes dressed up in historicizing metalwork. Back then, the tower received around 3.4 million visitors a year, but the figure has doubled today, to the point of saturation, with a four-hour wait to ascend the tower being common. Since elevator capacity cannot be augmented, the only way for SETE to increase profits—which directly benefit the city since it has a 60 percent stake in the company—is to encourage visitors to spend more time and dollars on this under-frequented first level. Mirror glass, they evidently decided, was not working.
Read about the City of Paris' Oct. 6, 2014, inauguration of the Eiffel Tower's new first floor.
Of the three 1980s structures, two have been demolished and replaced: the Pavillon Eiffel, which houses an event space, and the Pavillon Ferrié, which contains retail and cafeteria space. The third, the Pavillon 58 Tour Eiffel, which hosts a brasserie whose interior was refurbished by Patrick Jouin in 2009, has been renovated on the exterior. The north and west elevator shelters, where visitors change cabs, have also been rebuilt.
The RFP asked competing teams to address the issue of how they would actually build their schemes in the particular conditions of the Eiffel Tower, which SETE intended to keep open throughout the two-year construction period. While others turned to cumbersome, visually obtrusive cranes, Moatti-Rivière and contractor Bateg (a subsidiary of Vinci Construction France), proposed an extremely elegant solution comprising four slender stanchions set within the first level’s 85-foot-square central void, on which a platform could rise the 187 feet from grade.
Moatti-Rivière’s most effective salvo capitalizes on precisely this void. Visitors on grade looking up will see that the first level’s floor plate features some rather baroque curves around its interior perimeter, which has been entirely rebuilt by the architects in glass. A skywalk of transparent flooring now projects up to 6 feet into the void, edged by inclined glass safety barriers. The beautiful detailing includes anti-skid dots printed on the glass floor plates, a hinge mechanism for cleaning both sides of the safety barrier, and a serrated top edge to deter both pigeons and possible suicides.
Of all the features in the refurbishment, it is the skywalk that seems to delight visitors most. Tower-goers rushed over to experience the thrill of standing on air, while children rolled around to the delight of their photo-snapping parents. “I wanted to offer each visitor an aerial glissade, the possibility of experiencing the central void,” principal Alain Moatti says. “It’s as though you’re on a volcano, at the edge of the crater, walking around the danger—but, of course, without falling in!”
Where the new pavilions and elevator shelters are concerned, Moatti and his team wanted to maximize transparency while taking formal cues from the tower itself. “What propels the tower 300 meters into the air is its piers,” Moatti says. “The Eiffel Tower’s strength and dynamism are embodied in its oblique piers.” Unlike their orthogonal predecessors, the new structures follow this obliquity, which, he says, unites his firm’s interventions: “The diagonal of the pavilions and the safety barriers all push towards the central void.”
Mirroring each other on the northeast and southwest sides of the void, the new Eiffel and Ferrié pavilions are in metal—steel rather than the tower’s puddled iron—with glazed curtainwall façades on their principal elevations (those facing the city and into the void). With its impressive view eastward toward central Paris, the Pavillon Eiffel has been treated as a single-volume event space that, thanks to its glazing, virtually disappears when seen from across the void. Divided into two stories, the Pavillon Ferrié contains a shop, a cafeteria, an audiovisual space, and restrooms. Here it is the views out, not through, that count, with even the washbasins being set in front of dramatic vistas.
In addition to the obliquity, contextual complexity has been increased by having the roof of each pavilion follow the void-side curves of the first-level floor plate. Their floor plans, however, remain simple rectangles, resulting in splendidly convoluted façades that only our computer age could realize.
And only our era would impose the project constraints under which Moatti-Rivière and Bateg had to work. The Eiffel Tower is protected by the French government as a historic monument, meaning no welding or drilling is allowed, so the team had to devise a system of clips to hold the new structures in place. (The glass floors were allowed only because the tower’s original flooring had been replaced in a previous refurbishment.) The revamped elevator shelters, too, are squeezed into the tower’s piers to within an inch of their lives, taking on splendidly constructivist forms that Moatti-Rivière clearly enjoyed playing with.
Indeed, building and engineering the new structures was quite a heroic enterprise. Beyond the initial problem of access, which was solved with the stanchion system, torsion beams were needed to transfer dead and wind loads from the glazed façades to the tower’s structure with minimal contact. To avoid any risk of destabilization, the new pavilions could not be heavier than their 330-ton predecessors, so weighing machines were installed during construction to monitor material coming off and going on the tower. And then there was the question of safety: Even the tiniest screw could have fatal consequences if dropped from 187 feet up, so the entire first floor had to be swathed in fine netting.
One of the riches of Moatti-Rivière’s refurbishment is the detailing—although, as the French saying goes, there are détails qui tuent. The tower is painted in dull, dark beige, but the new, striking-red structures are coated in automotive paint, which produces a flawless finish, as Zaha Hadid has demonstrated with her furniture. The architects claim this was the tower’s original color since it sported a coat of minium anti-corrosion paint in 1889, but the result appears far too cherry to be authentic, and its glossy surface far too slick for the industrial look the architects’ argument implies. Indeed it jars somewhat in a project that formally is rather sober and strict. But then shininess and reflection, often to the point of tinselly glitz, are just as much a part of Moatti-Rivière’s arsenal as self-effacing transparency. This is particularly evident inside the Pavillon Ferrié, which abounds with highly reflective surfaces, including mirrored ceilings and shiny black walls with back-lit photographs of historical Eiffel Tower tourist tat. The elevator shelters too, so transparent from the within, become Jeff Koons–esque shiny baubles when seen from without.
Elsewhere, the detailing is more subtle. Metal benches are punched with a pattern resembling the tower’s iron latticework, information displays mimic the bookstalls of Paris’s legendary riverside bouquinistes, the Pavillon Eiffel’s pulleys recall the tower’s elevator wheels, and the custom Eiffel chairs elegantly evoke their reticulated muse. “Everything here was a prototype, everything was bespoke: the false ceilings, the system of clips, the washbasins, the glass façades, and all the furniture,” Moatti says. “The Eiffel chairs were practically handmade, cast in aluminum in a mold that was built by hand.”
But handsome details don’t necessarily add up to more than the sum of their parts, and the renovation uneasily rides the line between the restrained and the spectacular, the subtle and the garish, and the commercial and the monumental. In much of this, it is merely mirroring the paradoxes of the Eiffel Tower itself, only with the added hang-up that it dare not upstage its host. “You first have to look at [the tower] closely and then forget it in order to design your project,” Moatti says. “Otherwise, you’ll be crushed by the weight of history.” But one wonders if he wasn’t a little cowed by the responsibility—or by his client—and might have opted for something more exuberant in other circumstances. As it is, the project appears contradictory, an ebullient funfair attraction squeezed into a straitjacket of chic.
Furthermore, try as it might, the renovation only partially belies Barthes’s assertion that “you cannot visit the tower as a museum: there is nothing to see inside.” If it doesn’t quite get there, the fault lies with the strict project brief, not the architects. But SETE has anticipated this, for plans are afoot to add an extra floor underneath the tower, where a whole new cavern of commercial delights may one day increase tourist turnover yet further.