Monday, April 23, 2007

On Aesthetics, Part Two

In the past, I've written about factors outside the control of Wind-Sail, such as Wind Permits, that may directly impact our success. Another one of those factors, that clearly plays a role in future trajectories for distributed wind is Aesthetics. Specifically, much of today's buying public in America would be concerned about the visual impact of turbines, and perhaps more importantly, whether 'others' such as neighbors and future buyers would be put off be those visual aesthetics of a turbine on their property.

To me, aesthetics are more about past precedence and timing than about intrinsic beauty or not.

Past Precedence

Would anyone tolerate the aesthetics of transmission lines if they were new?

And yet, there are literally millions of these populating our landscapes because we had to have them for our power delivery. Of course, there continues to be concerns today about the safety of these transmission systems, but you don't see a lot of people making the case on the aesthetics of these. They've gotten used to them. or more specifically, there is no alternative to having them.

That's what I mean by power crunch mode, or carbon crunch mode. Someday, we could very well see the power utility mandate the local use of turbines, panels, geothermal, etc. because they'll have no traditional alternatives.


To me, nothing better exemplifies the role of timing in aesthetics than the Eiffel Tower. Today, the tower is the very epitome of European elegance and design. in fact, the tower is the single most recognized landmark in Europe. Property prices in the 7th arrondissement are some of the highest in Paris, no doubt aided by the appeal of the Champs de Mars and La Tour Eiffel. Yet, it wasn't always this way... Here's an excellent history of the early struggles Monseir Eiffel faced in trying to put up the tower.

From: (Mary Louis King, "A History of Western Architecture" pp.175-195)

The Eiffel Tower was designed by the French engineer and bridge builder Alexandre Gustave Eiffel (1832-1923) for the Paris Exposition of 1889. The tower is 300 m (984 ft) high and consists of an open iron framework making it the highest manmade structure in the world at the time. It was the largest attraction at the Exposition and today it remains the most recognized structure in all of Europe.

It was nearly never built.

After being awarded the contract to build the tower, Eiffel discovered that the Exposition Committee would only grant about a fourth of the monies needed to construct it. Eiffel himself would have to finance the balance. He struck a deal that would make him a very rich man. He agreed to independently find the funders for his tower but he wanted sole control of the tower and its profits for twenty years. They agreed. In a surprise to everyone, including Eiffel, the tower was paid off in the first year.

The deal that Eiffle hammered out is probably what saved the tower from destruction. Many in the arts and civic leaders felt the tower was an abomination. "They have only erected the framework of this monument, It has no skin"

The whole idea that iron -- just iron -- could be beautiful, flew in the face of architectural history. Everyone knew that the great cathedrals and palaces had all been built of stone with the careful craft of ornamentation which adorned them. Sure, iron can play a part in an unseen, underlying structure such had been done with the Statue of Liberty, but to leave it exposed was just poor taste. It was like showing your dirty laundry.

A Committee of Three Hundred was formed and they petitioned for its demise:

Honored compatriot, we come, writers, painters, sculptors, architects, passionate lovers of the beauty of Paris -- a beauty until now unspoiled -- to protest with all our might, with all our outrage, in the name of slighted French taste, in the name of threatened French art and history, against the erection, in the heart of our capital, of the useless and monstrous Eiffel Tower.

Are we going to allow all this beauty and tradition to be profaned? Is Paris now to be associated with the grotesque and mercantile imagination of a machine builder, to be defaced and disgraced? Even the commercial Americans would not want this Eiffel Tower which is, without any doubt, a dishonor to Paris. We all know this, everyone says it, everyone is deeply troubled by it. We, the Committee, are but a faint echo of universal sentiment, which is so legitimately outraged. When foreign visitors come to our universal exposition, they will cry out in astonishment," What!? Is this the atrocity that the French present to us as the representative of their vaunted national taste?" And they will be right to laugh at us, because the Paris of the sublime Gothic, the Paris of Jean Goujon, of Germain Pilon, Puget, Rude, Barye, etc. will have become the Paris of Monsieur Eiffel.

Listen to our plea! Imagine now a ridiculous tall tower dominating Paris like a gigantic black factory smokestack, crushing with its barbaric mass Notre Dame, Sainte Chapelle, the Tour Saint-Jacques, the Louvre, the dome of Les Invalides, the Arc de Triomphe, all our humiliated monuments, all our dwarfed architecture, which will be annihilated by Eiffel's hideous fantasy. For twenty years, over the city of Paris still vibrant with the genius of so many centuries, we shall see, spreading out like a blot of ink, the shadow of this disgusting column of bolted tin.9

It may have taken every bit of those twenty years to change some people's minds. All of the other iron buildings built for the Exposition were torn down shortly after (a shame). Today we look upon Eiffel's tower as anything but hideous. Mary Louis King calls it "a monument to nineteenth century architectural engineering and a frank display of structure and material."

Although built of iron, it is an inherently inferior material and a single beam is unable to withstand large stresses. That is why the tower appears over engineered by today's standards. Though, from this very weakness its' simple beauty is found. If you look at the tower, the tight lattice work of beams sort of mimic the biological cellular structure of a plant.

In 1855, Sir Henry Bessmer discovered a process of converting iron into steel thereby making it much stronger and lighter, but the evolution from invention to practical use and mass production took many years. Steel would eventually replace iron and would bring the "sky scraper" to the city skylines of America and in 1885 (actually four years prior to the Eiffel's tower), William LeBaron Jenney built the Home Insurance Building in Chicago -- the first sky scraper.