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.


 

 
 
 
 

The Thessaloniki dig problem: How can Greece build anything when it’s swarming with archaeologists?

Archaeological finds on display in an Athens metro station. Image: Gary Hartley.

It’s fair to say that the ancient isn’t much of a novelty in Greece. Almost every building site quickly becomes an archaeological site – it’s hard to spin a tight 360 in Athens without a reminder of ancient civilisation, even where the city is at its ugliest.

The country’s modern cities, recent interlopers above the topsoil, serve as fascinating grounds for debates that are not just about protecting the ancient, but what exactly to do with it once it’s been protected.

The matter-of-fact presentation that comes with the many, many discoveries illustrates the point. Athens often opts to display things more or less where they were found, making metro stations a network of museums that would probably take pride of place in most other capitals. If you’re into the casual presentation of the evocative, it doesn’t get much better than the toy dog on wheels in Acropolis station.

That’s not even close to the extent of what’s available to cast an eye over as you go about your day. There are ruins just inside the city centre’s flagship Zara store, visible through the glass floor and fringed by clothes racks; Roman baths next to a park cafe; an ancient road and cemetery in an under-used square near Omonia, the city’s down-at-heel centre point.

Ruins in Zara. Image: Gary Hartley.

There is undoubtedly something special about stumbling upon the beauty of the Ancients more or less where it’s always been, rather than over-curated and corralled into purpose-built spaces, beside postcards for sale. Not that there isn’t plenty of that approach too – but Greece offers such sheer abundance that you’ll always get at least part of the history of the people, offered up for the people, with no charge attached.

While the archaic and the modern can sit side by side with grace and charm, economic pressures are raising an altogether more gritty side to the balancing act. The hard press of international lenders for the commercialisation and privatisation of Greek assets is perhaps the combustible issue of the moment – but archaeology is proving something of a brake on the speed of the great sell-off.

The latest case in point is the development of Elliniko – a site where the city’s decrepit former airport and a good portion of the 2004 Olympic Games complex sits, along the coastal stretch dubbed the Athens Riviera. With support from China and Abu Dhabi, luxury hotels and apartments, malls and a wholesale re-landscaping of several square kilometres of coastline are planned.

By all accounts the bulldozers are ready to roll, but when a whole city’s hovering above its classical roots, getting an international, multi-faceted construction job off the ground promises to be tricky – even when it’s worth €8bn.


And so it’s proved. After much political push and shove over the last few weeks, 30 hectares of the 620-hectare plot have now been declared of historical interest by the country’s Central Archaeological Council. This probably means the development will continue, but only after considerable delays, and under the watchful eye of archaeologists.

It would be too easy to create a magical-realist fantasy of the Ancient Greeks counterpunching against the attacks of unrestrained capital. The truth is, even infrastructure projects funded with domestic public money run into the scowling spirits of history.

Thessaloniki’s Metro system, due for completion next year, has proved to be a series of profound accidental excavations – or, in the immortal words of the boss of Attiko Metro A.E., the company in charge of the project, “problems of the past”.

The most wonderful such ‘problem’ to be revealed is the Decumanus Maximus, the main avenue of the Byzantine city – complete with only the world’s second example of a square paved with marble. Add to that hundreds of thousands of artefacts, including incredibly well-preserved jewellery, and you’ve a hell of a haul.

Once again, the solution that everyone has finally agreed on is to emulate the Athens approach – making museums of the new metro stations. (Things have moved on from early suggestions that finds should be removed and stored at an ex-army camp miles from where they were unearthed.)

There are other problems. Government departments have laid off many of their experts, and the number of archaeologists employed at sites of interest has been minimised. Non-profit organisations have had their own financial struggles. All of this has aroused international as well as local concern, a case in point being the U.S. government’s renewal of Memorandums of Understanding with the Greek state in recent years over protection of “cultural property”.

But cuts in Greece are hardly a new thing: lack of government funding has become almost accepted across society. And when an obvious target for ire recedes, the public often needs to find a new one.

Roman baths in Athens. Image: Gary Hartley.

Archaeologists are increasingly finding themselves to be that target – and in the midst of high-stakes projects, it’s extremely hard to win an argument. If they rush an excavation to allow the quickest possible completion, they’re seen as reckless. If they need more time, they’re blamed for holding up progress. 

Another widely-told but possibly-apocryphal tale illustrates this current problem. During the construction of the Athens Metro, a construction worker was so frustrated by the perceived dawdling of archaeologists that he bought a cheap imitation amphora in a gift shop, smashed it up and scattered the fragments on site. The worthless pieces were painstakingly removed and analysed.

True or not, does this tale really prove any point about archaeologists? Not really. They’re generally a pragmatic bunch, simply wanting to keep relics intact and not get too embroiled in messy public debates.

It also doesn’t truly reflect mainstream attitudes to cultural capital. By and large, it’s highly valued for its own sake here. And while discoveries and delays may be ripe for satire, having history’s hoard on your doorstep offers inconveniences worth enduring. It’s also recognised that, since tourists are not just here for the blue skies, good food and beaches, it’s an important money-maker.

Nonetheless, glass malls and shiny towers with coastal views rising from public land are good for the purse, too – and the gains are more immediate. As the Greek state continues its relentless quest for inward investment, tensions are all but guaranteed in the coming years. 

This is a country that has seen so many epic battles in its time it has become a thing of cliché and oiled-up Hollywood depiction. But the latest struggle, between rapacious modernity and the buried past, could well be the most telling yet. 

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