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An Engineerin Paris- a public radio piece by Bill Hammack

(Return to Engineer in Paris audio page)

Bill I'm at the Louvre Musuem in Paris, home to the Mona Lisa. Yet, I'm going to skip all the great paintings here to look for the beauty and wonder of Paris from an engineer's viewpoint. The masterpieces here resulted from great creativity, from struggle, and from intense personal visions - is it possible to find the same in "technological Paris?" To see I'll take you on a tour from the lowest and darkest point in Paris to its highest, most brilliant pinnacles. I'll walk through what Victor Hugo called the "magnificence" of Paris, look at a cathedral inside out, and stand atop the greatest symbol of technological progress ever built. I start underground.

Bill I'm on the subway riding to what the novelist Victor Hugo called Paris's "outpouring of gold, her luxury, her magnificence" - all descriptions of the Paris Sewers.

Bill: I walk from the subway stop across a busy street near the Bridge called Pont de l'Alma. A sign reading "Viste des Egouts de Paris" - in English "visit the sewers of Paris" - marks the ticket booth for the tours. It helps to know a little French, which I don't.

Bill Hello.

Man Hello.

Bill Is this the tour of the sewer?

Man No guide.

Bill No guide? Will there be one? Will there be a tour of the sewers?

Man Sewers?

Bill Yes. When will that be? When? Time?

Man Forty-five minutes.

Bill And when will that start?

Man No guide, Map.

Bill No guide, just a map. Oh, that's fine. O.K. Yes that's fine.

Bill Indeed, no one guides you though the sewer - just a map and forty-five minutes of your own time.

Bill I walk twenty or so steps down to the sewer. I look forward to leaving behind the sounds of traffic, but other sounds soon fill the air because I'm entering something alive and vital.

Bill Workers in bright aqua-blue coveralls constantly repair this functioning storm sewer. I can see debris floating in the water, plus there's a slight odor in the air. But in addition, I'm also walking back into history.

Bill I first come across a large 19th century plaque celebrating Napoleon of France - not the famous Napoleon, known for being short and placing his hand inside his coat, but Napoleon the Third, his nephew.

Bill Louis Napoleon overthrew France's Second Republic in a coup in 1851, replacing it with the Second Empire. While his famous Uncle wanted to dominate the world, Napoleon the Third was excited about ... urban renewal. Yes, that's right, urban renewal. In the first days of his reign visitors often found him with pencil in hand drawing a street map of Paris.

Bill To institute this plan, Louis Napoleon hired Georges Haussmann. Using Napoleon's map Haussmann famously rebuilt the streets of Paris, but he prided himself on another work.

Bill "I especially like to dwell," he wrote, upon the sewer system "because it is mine." "I did not find it," he continued, "in the Emperor's program for the transformation of Paris, and no one in the world suggested it to me. It was the fruit of my observations, my assiduous research as a young civil servant, and my reflections in later life. It was my own conception."

Bill Stepping into the sewer from our technology-saturated age makes it difficult to see Haussman's great innovations in sewer design. Some seem too simple to be novel. For example, he built the sewers with a broad curve at their bottom - they are oval, rather than circular, nearly egg-shaped. This simple design let workers easily clean the sewers because debris settled only into a narrow strip on the bottom.

Bill You can really see the technological progress and ingenuity of the 19th century sewer when you reach an area covered with a grating about halfway through the tour. At this point the sewer waters roar.

Bill On this grating sewer workers have arranged placards and models of old equipment. Right now I'm in front of something very simple, yet effective for cleaning the sewer. I'm standing by a metal ball about ten feet in diameter.

Bill They use these hollow balls to clean the siphons that feed the sewer. That is, the long pipes that stretch from the Seine River up to the sewer. As water rushes through the sewer it creates suction that draws in river water -- just like a straw. They drop in these huge metal balls with diameters slightly smaller than the siphons. When the balls get sucked up into the sewers they push along the sand and stones that have settled in the pipes.

Bill Often in Paris dense crowds interfere with enjoying the tourist attractions. Not so in the Paris sewer, except for one particular demographic.

Bill As I wandered the sewers several groups of school children toured. When they heard me speak English I found myself instantly surrounded by fourth-grades trying out their English language skills.

Bill The tour concludes with, of all things, a gift shop where you can buy a key chain stamped with an image of the Paris Sewer.

Bill And a dandy video display explains everything possible about tossing huge metal balls into the sewer.

Bill Time now to leave the sewer {pause here} and continue exploring Paris by working my way up to its highest point. I now visit a place where the height is something of an illusion: The Cathedral of Notre Dame.

Bill I'm standing inside the nave of the Cathedral. It seems at first to be shaped like a horseshoe, yet it is, like all gothic cathedrals, built like a cross because there are hallways perpendicular to the main aisle of the nave. But you can't really see the cross unless you look where the Cathedral builders wanted you to focus: Up to heaven!

Bill As I cast my eye to the top of Notre Dame, the cross appears in all its glory. The cathedral seems dark to my eye, but if I place myself in the position of a 13th century peasant, Notre Dame's brightness would startle.

Bill You see, compared to older structures the arches of a cathedral are very open, very delicate -- they are as lightweight as you can get with stone. The builders made the piers and arches thin, to create the illusion of height - they look almost like fingers reaching to sky. What few people know is that the arches are so thin they cannot support themselves! In fact, to see the magic underlying a cathedral we must step outside.

Bill The arches are so thin that they need extra support. The builders could've reinforced the inside with iron bars stretching from one side of the cathedral to the other - to tug together, if you will the arches, kind of like joists in an attic. But this, of course, would ruin the builders aim - that magnificent structure where tier after tier of vaults raised your eyes to the heavens. To see their solution walk to a gated area on the south side of Notre Dame ...

Bill ... if you look up while walking along the Cathedral, you'll see hidden in the walls something called a flying buttress. Its a curved piece of stone, a half arch if you will, sitting on a pier, leaning up aganst the side of the building. At first they're hidden in the chapels nestled into the walls of the cathedral, but keep walking and you'll reach my favorite part of Notre Dame: The back. At the west end, no chapels hide anything - there tens of flying buttresses stick out in all their glory.

Bill Now that our eyes are pointed upward, let's travel to the highest point in all of Paris, and the greatest engineering marvel here, the Eiffel Tower.

Bill Standing here under the tower is really the way to appreciate it: The base is four large pylons making a square 420 feet on a side. These pylons are angled to the ground so that it looks as if they sweep up nearly 1000 feet to a small platform at the top of the tower. I find this majestic and magnificent, but not everyone agreed.

Bill When Eiffel proposed the tower, a group of artists and writers wrote to the Minister of Public works:

Bill "We ... devoted lovers of the beauty of Paris ... do protest with all our strength and with all our indignation, in the name of unappreciated French taste, in the name of French art ... the useless and monstrous Eiffel Tower."

Bill The signees never changed their minds about the Tower. Guy de Maupassant, the great short story writer, for example, ate lunch at the Tower as often as possible - that way he didn't have to see the marred skyline of Paris.

Bill These artists also rejected what the tower stood for. Gustave Eiffel built the tower for the 1889 Exposition, exactly 100 years after the French revolution. The Exposition backers wanted the tower to be a Crown Jewel at the Fair. They wanted the exhibits at the Fair to showcase how far the French had come since the revolution - to show that France excelled in the craft of the industrial world of the 19th century.

Bill Today as you approach the Tower, you'll be accosted by men selling small models. Each has a big ring laden with clanging two inch replicas of the Eiffel Tower.

Seller Three for two Euro.

Bill No, no thank you.

Seller A very good price. Moseuier, three for two Euro.

Bill No, no thank you.

Seller Two euro, two euro!

Bill No. No.

Seller Two for one Euro. One Euro!

Bill No, no thank you.

Seller One Euro my friend!

Bill No.

Seller Only one Euro

Bill No.

Seller This is very good price.

Bill With the next seller, I try, on a whim, the German "nein." Only one "nein" and they left me alone completely. This exchange sums up neatly several centuries of French-German relations.

Bill Having successfully negotiated my way through the hoards of trinket sellers, I can now admire the tower. From the base I first examine a part of the tower which is a .... fraud

Bill From where I stand I can see arches just underneath the first level, some 278 feet above my head. Afraid the public wouldn't believe that his simple structure would hold up, Eiffel added these gratuitous arches. They have no role but to fool the eye and give a sense of security by tapping subliminally into our faith in the strength of an arch.

Bill I, of course, love the view from the ground. Yet, there is another reason that I like appreciating the tower from underneath. My wife, whom I am travelling with, points it out.

Amy Chicken!

Bill I actually don't think its a good day to go up the Eiffel Tower.

Amy I do.

Bill We had a brighter day yesterday.

Amy You're just chicken.

Bill Well, I am, but at least I'd like it to be a bright day.

Amy It'll rain tomorrow.

Bill Oh, no it's supposed to be bright.

Bill I don't like heights. I don't often look out of airplane windows, I cannot ride in Ferris wheels, ski lifts terrify me, and I find riding in a cable car shear torture. And something as open and tall as the Eiffel Tower ... well ... I agree to at least walk up to the first level. We approach the arch, preparing to ascend.

Bill Oh, it isn't that bad. My wife buys us tickets costing a few Euro coins .... we pass through security, and start the climb.

Bill You said it doesn't feel very high?

Any Yeah.

Bill No, it doesn't feel that bad. I'm a little nervous, but not bad. I've been in fire towers that were much worse.

Bill I enjoy walking up, it gives me a chance to really study the structure of the tower.

Bill The Tower is a filigree of steel, designed so that it can withstand a wind of 148 miles per hour at the very top of the tower. The tower represent the pinnacle of Gustav Eiffel's career, whose start gives me little comfort about the stability of the tower. Eiffel at first aimed only to work in his uncle's vineagar factory. He worked toward that modest goal by being unremarkable at school: He failed to get into the best engineering school in Paris, having to settle for the second best.

Bill His uncle's vinegar factory failed, forcing Eiffel to innovate. At the time railway construction lead the way into the century of "steel and iron." Eiffel jumped on the band wagon becoming the first of the new breed of engineers: Highly mathematical, not flamboyant in speech or behavior, and having the calm self-assurance we associate with engineers. He built train stations, department stores, churches and bridges. He worked around the world: Egypt, Indochina, Hungary, Rumania, Portugal, Russia and Peru. Only once did his work appear in the United States: He designed the steel interior that supports the Statue of Liberty. In building all these things Eiffel became the first to really understand the importance of wind, he learned how to lace his structures with trusses to minimize their movement.

Bill So, when Eiffel designed his tower he knew he had to battle wind because essentially you have a very long and narrow thing sticking out of the ground. Eiffel the engineer had two choices: One, make the tower so heavy that by brute force it always resists the wind -- this is what is done in building a skyscraper. Or, two, make the surface of the tower so minimal that the wind passes right by. And that is, of course, what Eiffel did. The open lattice, the grid-like structure, make it look so minimalist as to seem weak, yet in that openes lies the secret of the tower's strength. tx {Bring to conclusion w/ voice}

Bill I'm on the second deck, 454 feet above the ground -- the spire rises above me to 945 feet -- although fog surrounds it so my wife and I choose to go no further. This is a good place to end this engineer's tour of Paris because I'm standing atop a representation in steel and iron of all that has happened to us in the last century.

Bill Eiffel's Tower marked a change in our purpose as a society, in our focus. In the past we built towers for spiritual purposes: Think of Gothic cathedrals, whose bells called out prayer hours, or the Minarets that reminded Moslems of their religious duties. In contrast, Eiffel built his tower to astonish the World with the achievements of science and technology. To awe them with a filigree of metal, so open as to seem vulnerable, yet able to resists a gale force wind of almost 150 miles per hour.

Bill That accomplishment is, for me, a creative act on par with the things I skipped today in the Lourve Museum - equal in a way with the Mona Lisa and the Venus de Milo. The Italian poet Marinetti wrote in 1911: "A roaring motor car, which runs like a machine gun, is more beautiful than the [statue of the] Winged Victory" in the Lourve. That's too extreme, but as I showed today there is beauty to be found in any kind of human endeavor, in any creative act - from the Mona Lisa to the Eiffel Tower, and even, the sewers of Paris.