How London lost its Eiffel Tower

The Eiffel Tower: not available in London. Image: Edisonblus/Wikimedia Commons

As the 19th century drew to a close, the Eiffel Tower was considered one of the world’s architectural wonders, as well as being the tallest man-made structure on the planet. This didn’t sit well with some in Britain, who looked across the channel with with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans for a tower that would put the French into second place.

This wasn’t purely a matter of national pride - the Eiffel Tower was making a huge amount of money through entrance fees alone, even before the income from the restaurants and shops incorporated into the structure. The biggest advocate for a London rival was Sir Edward Watkin, an impressively facial-haired MP who had a long history of running train companies, including a failed attempt at a channel tunnel; his most recent endeavour was the Metropolitan Railway (now the London Underground’s Metropolitan Line), and he figured that building a socking great tower at one end of it was one way of getting people onto trains.

After consulting Eiffel, who patriotically declined to better his domestic work in a foreign land, a competition was run to find a design: the major specification being that the tower would stand at minimum 1,200 feet tall, nearly 200 feet taller than the Parisian effort. Entries arrived from around the world, and the results were published in a catalogue, which includes some pleasantly bizarre ideas.

Whilst most stuck to something around the minimum height, one of the wildest suggestions (courtesy of Albert Brunel, Rouen, France) was for a 2,296-foot high tower made out of granite. To give an idea of the scale of that ambition: it would have been the tallest structure in the world until the construction of Dubai’s Burj Khalifa in 2010.

Three of the competition entries. Feasibility not necessarily a concern.

A homegrown London effort with the catchy name of "Monument of Hieroglyphics emblematical of British History during Queen Victoria's Reign" clocked in at a mere 2,000 feet, but was a 300,000-ton spiral column with a railway running halfway up it. Practical!

The more sensible designs show Eiffel’s influence, and the winner of the 500 guinea prize was a steel-framed job by engineer A. D. Stewart and architects J. M. Maclaren and W. Dunn, of London. Described as being of “Oriental character” their 1,200-foot design included a hotel, restaurants, a high-altitude sanatorium, an observatory and even Turkish baths.

The winning 8-legged design - later revised to lose 4 legs, and 25 feet. Confusingly.

While 1,200 feet may have been the bare minimum for the competition - and the final plan was revised downwards to 1,175 - if it was standing today it would still be by far the tallest structure in London, towering over the Shard’s pathetic 1,016. And it would have been ten times the height of the next highest building in London at the time, St Paul’s cathedral.

Construction on Watkin’s tower was started, in Wembley Park - the still extant station of the same name was built specifically to bring people to the tower and surrounding attractions. But if you’ve visited the area later, you may have noted the absence of Eiffel tower-beating steel monsters. From the start the project ran into financial difficulties: a shortage of initial investment led to a simplified design that turned out to be less stable than projected. The first stage of the tower went up and was opened to the paying public in 1896, but the 154-foot high platform didn’t prove popular enough to ease the project’s money troubles, and the project went into liquidation.

The only completed section of Watkin's tower: still the tallest structure in London at the time, to be fair.

The tower’s chief champion was by now absent, Watkin having retired after a stroke. He passed away in 1901, and the following year safety concerns over the stability issue finally forced the closure of what could have been his lasting memorial. It was dynamited to bits a few years later. This made way for a more familiar Wembley icon: the original football stadium, constructed on the same site in 1923, in part because of the railway station and other facilities originally built for the tower.

The last traces of the tower were remnants of the concrete foundations, rediscovered and removed in the 2000s when they added yet another delay to the troubled construction of the new Wembley Stadium. But just down the road, the endeavour is commemorated in the name of a local pub: the Watkins' Folly.


 

 
 
 
 

On Walter Benjamin, and the “Arcades Project”

Passage Verdue, Paris. Image: LPLT/Wikimedia Commons.

In 1940 a small group of refugees were turned away at the French-Spanish border. Having fled the Nazi invasion of France, they hoped to find safety in Spain. One of their number, a German-Jewish philosopher and writer, intended to have travelled onwards to America, where he would certainly be safe. So distraught was he by the refusal he met at the border that he took his own life.

The writer in question was Walter Benjamin, the prominent critical theorist who has contributed so much to our understanding of urban society, and he died with a manuscript close at hand. When asked previously if the briefcase of notes was really necessary to a man fleeing for his life he had replied, “I cannot risk losing it. It must be saved. It is more important than I am.”

The work that Benjamin died protecting was the Arcades Project. It was to be his magnus opus, intended by the author to illuminate the contradictions of modern city life. But it was never finished.

To Benjamin, the subject of the work, the arcades of Paris, were relics of a past social order, where consumerism ruled. The arcades were a precursor to the modern mall, lined with all sorts of shops, cafes and other establishments where visitors could buy into the good life. The area between these two lines of businesses was covered with glass and metal roofs, much like a conservatory: it gave visitors the high street feel in an intimate, sheltered and well-lit setting. You can still find examples of such places in modern London in the Burlington and Piccadilly arcades, both off Piccadilly.

Such arcades proved hugely popular, spreading across Europe’s capitals as the 19th century progressed. By Benjamin’s time, though, his type of shopping area was losing custom to the fancy department stores, and in Paris many of them had been obliterated in Haussmann’s city reforms of the 1850s and ‘60s. Whereas Parisians could once visit 300 arcades, now only 30 remain.

Through his research Benjamin started to see the arcades as representative of a pivotal moment in social history: the point when society became focused on consumption over production. Buying the latest fad product was just an opium, he thought, dulling senses to the true nature of the world. By bringing light to this, he hoped to wake people up from the consumerism of the 19th Century and bring forth some kind of socialist utopia.


He also warned that this shiny veneer of progress was hiding the true state of things. Instead, he revered crusty old cities like contemporary Marseilles and Moscow, where social life was more honest. In this way, Benjamin contributed to the intellectual movement focused on stripping away the excess of revivalism, standing alongside architects such as Le Corbusier. 

Through his newspaper essays throughout the first half of the 20th Century, Benjamin also became one of the first thinkers to focus on urban isolation. His suggestion that we can be most alone when among such a dense mass of other people is something many in modern cities would sympathise with. His work wasn’t all doom and gloom, however, as he saw cities as our salvation, too: laboratories from where society’s problems can be worked out.

It was 2000 before an English translation of the unfinished the Arcades Project was published, but by then the work had already had a significant impact. Just as he stood on the shoulders of giants such as Baudelaire and the Surrealists, modern thinkers have drawn on his work. Benjamin's concerns about common architectural forms can be seen to inspire modern architects such as Laurie Hawkinson, Steven Holl, Tod Williams and Billie Tsien.

The city of Paris itself was as much a part of the Arcade Project’s inspiration for Benjamin as was his intellectual predecessors. In his letters he repeats that it felt “more like home” than Berlin, and his days were spent marvelling at how the old and the modern exist together on the Parisian streets.

How groundbreaking the Arcades Project really was is hard to say. The fact it wasn’t finished certainly scuppered Benjamin’s plans to wake society up from its consumerist slumber, but that doesn’t make the work inconsequential. His fairytale of steel and glass is as much about the relationship between its author and Paris as it is a theoretical work. By putting the city as the main subject in human’s social history he laid the groundwork for future generations of thinkers.

Benjamin was lost to the tragic tide of the 20th century history, and his death marked the end of the project which could have changed the way we think of the urban landscape. Even if you shy away from the grandiose or don’t buy into his promises of socialist utopia, reading the work can still offer some eclectic factoids about 19th century France. At any rate, it must be acknowledged that the man gave his life to the betterment of society and the cities in which we live.