Skip to main content

Print | PDF
Amodern 7: Ephemera and Ephemerality
December 2017


Threshold Experiences of Memory in Paris, 1889 and 1900

Christina Svendsen

Ephemera are a defining feature of modern mass media, fleeting and consumable, from ticket stubs to newspapers, radio broadcasts, and even email. “Mechanical reproducibility,” to use Walter Benjamin’s phrase, has made the artifacts of modern culture cheap and easy to produce, and easily disposable. By contrast, buildings, and in particular monuments, are assumed to incarnate stable historical memory. Pierre Nora’s notion of architectural sites of collective memory, or lieux de mémoire, points to this belief in buildings as a stable guarantor of memory that will outlast human lifespans. In The Life and Death of Buildings, art historian Joel Smith claims that “buildings embody durational time.”1  In a similar gesture, Jacques Derrida points to the architectural origin of the concept of the “archive” in the Greek word arkheion, or house, the magistrate’s domicile.2 Marcel Proust even describes personal recollection as “the immense edifice of memory,” a term that updates the classical notion of the memory palace.3 Yet despite this longstanding association, many buildings are built to be temporary: tents, refugee camps, theatrical stages. Indeed, in modernity, temporary construction has become the norm thanks to cheap materials and an appetite for the new. We construct certain architecture to be ephemeral, fleeting, in a similar fashion to other forms of disposable mass media, from newspapers to demonstration posters. This taste for ephemeral buildings was inaugurated by technological innovation of the World Fairs, where monuments were erected for a season. The ephemerality of an apparently solid constructed world enabled a fantasy for spectators of control over their monuments, an ability to dismiss their presence that augurs the possibility of being freed from the burden of visible traces of the past. Furthermore, the periodic creation of an artificial environment made for spectators from the man-made materials of iron and glass suggests a new rhythm for technology, whose anticipated (and often spectacular) obsolescence mimics natural cycles of biological growth and decay.

“World exhibitions are places of pilgrimage to the commodity fetish,” Walter Benjamin wrote in his 1935 Exposé for the Arcades Project, the same context in which he dubs Paris capital of the nineteenth century.4 In this essay, I take two threshold spaces as exemplary of the new consumerist love of ephemera, seen in heightened form in monumental ephemera, enormous ephemeral buildings: the Eiffel Tower, entrance gate to the 1889 World Fair in Paris; and the Art Nouveau portal, entrance to the 1900 Fair, built by architect René Binet and inspired by scientist Ernst Haeckel’s drawings of microscopic organisms, or radiolarians. Both structures were designed to be temporary, yet the Eiffel Tower was preserved due to its mass popularity while Binet’s gate, known as the Porte Monumentale, was not. These shocking and innovatively designed portals were transitional spaces mediating entry to the new cityscape of the World Fair, yet also, and more importantly, thresholds conducting ordinary citizens into a mass experience of emergent modernity, one that retrospectively alters their understanding of their own present moment as well as the past (and its potential fungibility). Comparing these two structures allows me to show how architecture participates in modernity’s mediatization of memory, dramatizing the conflict between our desire to consume the past, and our need to preserve its traces in order to create habitable spaces. It also allows me to demonstrate how these buildings were attempts to accommodate mass crowds to the new tempo of life in modern cities, successfully in the case of the Eiffel Tower, and an instructive failure in the case of Binet’s Art Nouveau portal.

Fig. 1: Binet’s Porte Monumentale.

Of course, it is difficult to talk about any temporary World Fair building without first mentioning the very first of them all, the groundbreaking Crystal Palace from the 1851 World Fair in London, which became the fair’s leading attraction and sensationalized new construction styles based on the use of new technology and in particular artificial new building materials, iron and glass. The Crystal Palace formalized the agonistic relationship in modernist architecture between nature and artifice, the organic and the inorganic. The Crystal Palace made use of the newest building technologies, using the revolutionary tensile strength of iron to support a dome and vaults far higher and airier, supported on columns much thinner than had ever before been seen, creating an effect that was almost supernatural for spectators who compared it to an enchanted space or the work of fairies. Yet the Crystal Palace’s architect was neither an architect nor an engineer, but Joseph Paxton, a man best known as head gardener to the Duke of Devonshire. His inventive structure was directly inspired by greenhouse construction. In addition to its gleaming and transparent panes that made the Palace appear not quite substantial, a major reason that Paxton’s design was selected for the fair was its cheapness, and the fact that it could temporarily enclose a large terrain in Hyde Park, including a full-size avenue of elm trees, yet still easily be disassembled after the fair was over and re-erected elsewhere or recycled. Except for the central dome, the Crystal Palace was constructed as a series of regular repeating units, like the cells in a beehive: a grid that, at least theoretically, could be extended infinitely depending on the needs of the user. Paxton pioneered a modular construction technique, building these cells as repeating modules using standard-sized panes of glass, laminated wood, and prefabricated cast iron.5

Glassed in yet open optically to the sky and surrounding city thanks to its transparent walls, the Crystal Palace inaugurated a second nature for urban dwellers based on comfort and the visual pleasures of display. The speed with which the building was thrown up, then taken apart after the Exhibition was over, to be moved to Sydenham Hill in south London, bespeaks the mobility of even large, fixed structures in modern cities, and the impermanence of even a large-scale urban spectacle – a temporary monument. The Crystal Palace showed that architecture could imitate the speed and impermanence of fashion cycles, feeding characteristically modern desires for novelty and sensation.

Boosters of later World Fairs, including the 1889 and 1900 Exhibitions in Paris, would try to competitively top the 1851 Exhibition’s Crystal Palace. Whereas the 1851 Exhibition was held at the behest of the British monarch and her progressive spouse, Prince Albert, the 1889 Exposition was held for workers (who were to be treated as consumers) and was explicitly in celebration of the centenary of the French Revolution. This depressed interest on the part of countries ruled by monarchs at the time such as Great Britain and Germany, but did nothing to dampen popular enthusiasm for the Exposition; in a country of 41 million inhabitants, 51 million people visited the Exposition while it was open, their tickets directly integrated into the train ticket to get there.6 Crystal Palace building techniques relying on the use of iron and glass were crucial for building the main elements of the spectacle for the 1889 fair as well: the Eiffel Tower, of course, and also the Galerie des machines, an enormous and elegant single-vault building of iron and glass whose supporting walls actually curved inward before touching the ground, creating an elegantly light and sinuous design. Initially both structures were designed to be temporary, and to be removed after a period of twenty years. The Eiffel Tower was such a scandalous success – and, crucially, was built close enough to the banks of the Seine, despite the engineering difficulties this raised for laying down solid foundation – that it was kept as a permanent installation on the Champ de Mars after its initial lease period expired. By contrast, the Galerie des machines was demolished on schedule in 1910, to allow the large footprint of ground that it occupied to be used for other purposes (including military formations, the Champ de Mars’ initial purpose).

The popularity of these apparently temporary architectural structures, and their absorption into the fleeting rhythms of popular fashion, mark a change in the pace of experience in modernity, an acceleration in the tempo of change that has only increased since then. As Benjamin writes: “The first structures of iron served transitory purposes: covered markets, railroad stations, exhibitions. Iron is thus immediately allied with function moments in the life of the economy. What was once functional and transitional, however, begins today, at an altered tempo, to seem formal and stable.”7 We have become so acclimatized to the makeshift, prefabricated, and the less-than-solid, that we don’t even recognize the Eiffel Tower as looking temporary anymore. Indeed, the ironwork that struck its own contemporaries as purely functional looks remarkably ornamental now, like lace or filigree, on the curving flanks of the tower that flare outward in feminine fashion, like an iron skirt, a geometric Marianne.

The global fashion for fairs began in the revolutionary era, a great moment of temporal and historical rupture predating the Industrial Revolution. Robespierre apparently made an early suggestion to hold a series of public events celebrating French industry, though the idea only took on concrete form through the intervention of François de Neufchateau, who issued a proclamation to citizens on the 9th of Fructidor, Year VI that there would be a new spectacle, a public exposition, to celebrate “the products of French industry.”8

As we can see, the French Revolution not only interrupted cyclical perceptions of course of history, plunging citizens into a vertiginous experience of linear time, through shocking, unrepeatable events, but even formalized a new revolutionary time. The temporary new calendar mediated (or translated) the older calendar by recalibrating months into multiples of ten, linking days to botany and the almanac, and standardizing calendar names through the use of Greco-Roman etymologies. The Paris Exposition of 1889 commemorating the revolution’s centenary echoed this revisionist approach to ways of telling time. It celebrated France’s arrival into a new epoch, an era of industrialization, global commerce, and synchronized railroad time. Indeed, as France’s minister of industry and commerce at the time, Edouard Lockroy, wrote in defense of the Eiffel Tower, it was “the image of progress as we conceive of it today: a pole around which humanity spirals eternally upward.”9

The Exposition of 1889 formalized the transformation of culture into a modern regime of commercialized objects, commodities understood in terms of their exchange value and put on display in the magnificent spectacle of the World Fair, a trend that would only intensify at the 1900 Fair. “From the European perspective, things looked this way: In all areas of production from the Middle Ages until the beginning of the nineteenth century, the development of technology proceeded at a much slower rate than the development of art. Art could take its time in variously assimilating the technological modes of operation ….finally we arrive at the present state of things: the possibility now arises that art will no longer find time to adapt somehow to technological processes. The advertisement is the ruse by which the dream forces itself on industry.”10

Two temporal processes have altered the tempo of living: the synchronization that standardized experiential time marked by a church bell to mechanical time, and acceleration of change that disrupted normal patterns of living. The Exhibitions celebrate this acceleration and demand that the city change to accommodate it; in his convolute on Exhibitions, Benjamin quotes an author demanding that future Paris city planning demand different architectural orders in every neighborhood, “Gothic, Turkish, Chinese, Egyptian, Burmese, and so forth,”11 translating “the architecture of future exhibitions” to the fabric of Paris itself, and another, Fritz Stahl, remarking on how the transitory leaves a lasting trace in Paris “such transitory installations, as a rule, have had no influence on the configuration of cities ….It is otherwise … in Paris. Precisely in the fact that here giant exhibitions could be set up in the middle of town, and that nearly always they would leave behind a monument well suited to the city’s aspect.”12 On one hand, the World Fairs helped accelerate the already exponential pace of technological, aesthetic, and societal change, turning architecture and even that special type of architecture, the monument, into a commodity, a disposable consumer product that can be enjoyed and forgotten. Yet on the other hand, Paris is the exception, and perhaps the Eiffel Tower is the exception as well, one that proves the rule. As a work of ephemeral architecture that was allowed to become permanent, it marks the threshold moment of transition between one regime of temporality to another, to the Rem Koolhaasian chaos of a “junkspace” where nothing is permanent and signifiers are consigned to a swirling jumble, from a regime valuing tradition and stability to an ephemeric atmosphere of floating objects rather than weighted ones that mark out physical spaces.

No transitory monument has marked Paris more than the Eiffel Tower. Although, looking at it now, we see a tower, initially it was constructed as the entrance arch to the 1889 Exhibition, a threshold space conducting mass viewers to the newest experience of modernity. Constructed to be temporary, it has required frequent renovations, to the point that while the form remains stable, its steel beams and rivets have been switched out and replaced so often that little remains of the original physical structure. Furthermore, the Tower has always been marked by the threat of disappearance and destruction from its very inauguration, when some, gazing at the structure at different stages of its two-year construction period, saw a ruin, and had difficulty in believing in its completion. One of its chief defenders, Raymond Duchamp-Villon, wrote in 1913 as part of a pamphlet-based argument to preserve the Tower, that no outside observers thought the tower would be finished. “The wind would topple it, lightning would break or melt it; temperature variations would disarticulate the rivets. Indeed, at the peak of his argument, he claims: “c’était une catastrophe assurée, prevue, désirée;” it was a catastrophe assured, foretold, and desired.13

Yet, Duchamp-Villon also states in oddly admiring language, “the tower was attacked by winds, and contented itself with describing little ellipses with its peak, of about 10-12 centimeters. It [or rather, “she”] was hit by lightning and sang like the swelling burst of an organ chord. On days of heat wave, the unilateral heat made her bend several centimeters like a bow, in a slight reverence, but there was no catastrophe. Living its strange life, animated by an imperceptible balancing, erect beneath the sun, contracted under a grey sky, glorious and sonorous, the tower resisted the elements as it has men.”14 Duchamp-Villon’s vision of the iron Tower bestows a mineral, almost organic life upon it, even as it describes the Eiffel Tower as living on borrowed time, marked for catastrophe, that temporality of crisis-time so characteristic of the modern era.

The Eiffel Tower lives in its ephemeral reproduction upon postcards, selfie photographs, and miniature toys as much as it does in its ornamentation of the Paris sky. Interestingly, these images often depict the Eiffel Tower under construction, struck by lightning, or at night covered in spotlights that recall its history in aerial warfare as much as New Year’s celebrations. It is available for our consumption: a word rooted in the Latin etymology cum and sumere, meaning to use up entirely, or to take away. Our fascination with its potential destruction highlights the Eiffel Tower’s life as precariously on the verge of being ephemeral. Yet as much as we consume the Tower, it remains there afterwards nonetheless, a permanent trace in the skyline. In an ode to the Arc de Triomphe written by Victor Hugo and also cited by Benjamin, the Arc de Triomphe is one of the few monuments, along with the cathedral of Notre Dame, to survive until the year 3000. Hugo died before the Eiffel Tower was completed, but the tower feels present in the poem, gate and symbolic threshold space prefigured by another symbolic gateway, the Arc de Triomphe. In Hugo’s vision of the year 3000, Paris is depopulated and all its houses are gone, and nature has begun to reassert itself, yet the ruined monuments remain and call out to one another with vanished voices, a crowd of victory cries that are answered by Notre Dame’s solemn Te Deum, in a geography of ruination whose very silence resonates with lost voices: “les lieux où fut Paris.”15

The Eiffel Tower’s resistance to time perhaps renders it a kind of temporal index, a dipstick or barometer of our own syncopated, looping, and hiccupping dyschrony with each other and with historical progression. Art historian Alois Riegl notes that before the notion of monuments as landmark works of art, monuments “in the oldest and most original sense” were “a work of man erected for the specific purpose of keeping human deeds or destinies (or a complex accumulation thereof) alive and present in the consciousness of future generations. It may be a monument of either art or writing … most often both genres are combined in equal measure.” Roland Barthes, by contrast, claims the Eiffel Tower “achieves a kind of degree zero of the monument; it participates in no rite, in no cult, not even in Art; you cannot visit the Tower as a museum: there is nothing to see inside.” Rather, to visit the Tower is “to participate in a dream of which it is (and this is its originality) much more the crystallizer than the true object.”16 Barthes goes on to call the Eiffel Tower a “useless monument” and a “total monument” because it transgresses the separation between seeing and being seen.17 It is the view, but at the same time it “gives” the view, making possible a panoramic bird’s eye view of Paris that creates the city as an intelligible (but transitory, constantly changing) object to be understood, decoded like a map, in short, read.

The Eiffel Tower thus escapes the destructive drives of consumerist capital and fashion because it disappears as an empty sign, “in turn and according to the appeals of our imagination the symbol of Paris, of modernity, of communication, of science or the nineteenth century, rocket, stem, derrick, phallus, lightning rod or insect, confronting the itineraries of our dreams.”18 It escapes our fantasies of toppling or destroying it, making it ephemeral like so many other World Fair structures, because it is a radiantly pure signifier whose meaning itself is ephemeral, continually changing and up for grabs; it is also the promise of a new modern condition of seeing as well as a sight to be seen. Indeed, it is a threshold space formerly connecting us to novelty, new sensations of seeing, and now connecting us to futures past, proleptic memories of utopic visions, in short retrospective histories of modernist prophecy.

Fig. 2: La Tour Eiffel, 1900.

As entrance gate, the Eiffel Tower was also construed one more iteration of a familiar architectural genre, the triumphal arch. Triumphal arches classically also instituted a strange ephemeral temporality, a political structure lasting only for a day: the arch was usually temporary and was constructed so that the general who defended Rome from enemies could be king for a day before the laws of the republic were reasserted; according to legend, a slave was posted in the triumphator’s chariot to whisper in his ear: “respice post te, hominem momento te,” or again, “ memento mori”: look behind yourself and remember you are only a man; remember that you will die.” Triumphal arches therefore instantiate an ephemeral state of being in time, and all the more so the Eiffel Tower, which had four arches forming two paths, creating a sort of crossroads or interior space porously open to the outside. This architectural logic was already at play in Paris in the stone spectacle of Napoléon’s Arc de Triomphe, repeated in functionalist form in Eiffel’s tower. Indeed, because of the success of iron as a construction material, and the Eiffel Tower as spectacle, many Parisians at the time explicitly nicknamed the 1889 Exposition “the triumph of iron.”

The 1900 World Fair also featured a triumphal entry arch made of iron, but one that was soon doomed to be demolished not long after the closing of the Fair. The 1900 Exposition was still centered around the Eiffel Tower, which remained in place, now flanked with an experimental globe structure, but it was now a fulcrum, a central node, not an entrance. The new threshold space for entering the Exhibition was René Binet’s astonishing Porte Monumentale, a three-legged arch decorated in variegated colors and adorned with statuary, including the fashionable female figure of “la Parisienne” at its summit. The Porte Monumentale was aligned with the Eiffel Tower along one of the two main axes of the fairground. It bore a superficial similarity to the Eiffel Tower in that both were built from iron skeletons, but unlike the Eiffel Tower, the Porte Monumentale’s surface was clad with ornamentation and plaster that disguised its underlying structure, not unlike the Statue of Liberty in the United States, which was built with the same technique. 1900 was the year of Art Nouveau in Paris, inaugurating new advertising styles and the Paris Métro as well as the massively popular World Fair. Binet’s Gate was also fashionably Art Nouveau in style, its design based directly on drawings by scientist Ernst Haeckel of radiolarians, tiny microorganisms that exist in sea water and can only be seen by microscope. The gate itself was a radiolarian enlarged to a scale giant enough that people could pass through it as a portal. Its symmetric triangular shape rested on three columns, so that a single entry-gate channeled visitors into a small hall with two gates bifurcating outwards into the two great temporary boulevards of the fairground.

Fig. 3: Ernst Haeckel’s Radiolarians.

Other architects (notably Louis Sullivan) had been influenced by Haeckel before, but in Binet’s gate, the influence of natural sciences on architecture reaches a peak. Art Nouveau aimed for a synthesis of nature and science, as we can see even in the title of Haeckel’s influential book Kunstformen der Natur, or Art Forms of Nature, from which these radiolarian drawings came. Nature is seen as the origin of cyclical rhythms of ephemerality in art, domesticated or tamed as laws of fashion in modernity. The building blocks of nature, whether cells or crystals, are taken by Binet as the elements of his building, enlarged in scale. In exhorting other architects to follow his lead, Binet urges them to find new forms for architecture by turning “to the great laboratory of Nature, always dynamic, always productive, never stopping or hesitating for an instant. There the infallible secret of creation and transformation can be acquired.”19 This is a different model for obsolescence than the flux of desire stimulated by consumerist commodity fetishism. For Binet, influenced by Haeckel, the biological churn of constant regeneration underpins our modern accelerated rhythms of innovation and change, not artificial lures of capitalism. Modernism grafts itself back onto the cyclical time of nature, now expressed in crystalline form, in iron, glass, and steel.

Why then, given its inventiveness and style, was Binet’s Porte Monumentale destroyed and forgotten, unlike Eiffel’s Tower? Several reasons present themselves. For one thing, Binet’s Gate attempts to naturalize the accelerated pace of change of the exposition were dramatized more innovatively elsewhere in the Parisian fairgrounds, in the newly created metro stations and the moving sidewalks that moved at two different speeds, delighting pedestrians. Binet’s adapted forms from nature, but stylized and orientalized them in ways that were already familiar, even clichéd, despite the novelty of the radiolarian structure. Most glaringly, the Gate was topped with an enormous female figure known as La Parisienne, wearing neither classical robes nor Republican cockade but rather the latest ladies’ fashions of the day, a dress by the couturiere Jeanne Paquin. Elsewhere in the Exposition, a smaller version of Bartholdi’s Statue of Liberty was on display and received plaudits from critics, but the crowds disliked La Parisienne because she was not an allegorical figure like the Marianne, representative of the French nation. Rather, she was an invented synecdoche for Paris itself, wearing the city’s symbol of a riverboat on her head (Fluctuat nec mergitur) and lording it over attendees from other regions of France. Since France was an empire with colonies, La Parisienne reigned by extension not just over the other regions of France but also over her colonial possessions, a connection reinforced by the presence of the “human zoo” of West African villages installed on the Champs de Mars. Art historian Ruth Iskin has even argued that the fact of putting a Parisienne on display near, yet above, West African women in “native” and Parisian garb in the Dahomey village policed the boundary between barbaric and civilized, monumentalizing how fashion should be worn, taste incarnated, in the person of an elegant “missionary of French fashion.”20

Fig. 4: La Parisienne.

At a distance, and from below, however, the details were often hard to perceive for the masses of visitors. Reactions centered on the fact that La Parisienne was an everyday woman, fully dressed and ordinary, unlike the idealized nude or semi-nude statues of the Marianne, Venus, or Mercury that one might see elsewhere at the Fair. Analysis of the “types” in a crowd was a popular feuilleton trope of the day, and she was a type – the modern woman – now placed at the pinnacle of the Exposition Universelle. People criticized her bold, jutting stride as well as her nautical headgear; her stance of “masculine assertiveness”drew down much of the criticism.21 Indeed, despite her ankle-length outfit, many spectators and critics decried La Parisienne as a prostitute, underlining once more the pejorative association of modern change with the heightened pace of consumption and commercialization. Yet much of the criticism of the sculpture, created by Paul Moreau-Vauthier using Sarah Bernhardt as his model, can be traced to criticisms that directly involve Art Nouveau/Jugendstil itself, and the overall design of Binet’s gate.

Rather than naturalizing industrial change, the Gate’s motifs commercialized nature and design, implicating them both in the fast turnover of consumer fashions. Jeanne Paquin’s costume designs were of course for sale in the city, and fashion itself perfectly embodied the hunt for novelty, the search for the new that can reveal itself as an endless churning return of the same under the false guise of the new. La Parisienne was a fashion queen, and an incarnation of the ideal consumer, mesmerized by the shine of commodities on display in the shop window. Even the concealment of the Gate’s iron skeleton in cladding and paint highlights its falsity, its mask. Where the Eiffel Tower exposed its joints, support beams, and montaged rivets, the Porte Monumentale was nostalgic: padded with cladding, hiding its structure, trying to unite modern values of technology with an eighteenth-century notion of lightness and grace.

Benjamin and others found Art Nouveau to be a faux attempt at modernism, an effort to reconcile new technology with new art forms that ultimately falls back on older styles and clichés. Arthur Chandler makes this claim about the aesthetic qualities of La Parisienne, modeled of course on an actress, not a citoyenne, stating “Moreau–Vauthier had worked “following the formula,” mixing in a little art-nouveau waves with a traditional, melodramatic pose and idealized modelling.”22 Benjamin saw this bad faith aesthetically and societally in Jugendstil, connecting it to the infertility and emancipation of lesbians in Baudelaire’s Fleurs du mal, women characters in Ibsen, and the “perverse flower-glance” of Odilon Redon (S7a, 5). Binet’s Art Nouveau was not a generative art form to Benjamin, or a successful modernist adaptation to modern conditions of production and urbanization. “Jugendstil is the second attempt on the part of art to come to terms with technology. The first attempt was realism …. In Jugendstil, the problem as such was already prey to repression. Jugendstil no longer saw itself threatened by the competing technology. And so the confrontation with technology that lies hidden within it was all the more aggressive. Its recourse to technological motifs arises from the effort to sterilize them ornamentally” (S8a, 1). Benjamin argues that instead of uniting technology with nature as Binet and Haeckel had hoped, Jugendstil merely conceals technology underneath a highly stylized, hieratic depiction of nature. It is allied with illusion, self-deception, and commodification. “Jugendstil is the dream that one has come awake” (K2, 6). This stage of Art Nouveau seems to have not survived for Benjamin because it is equivalent with a kind of wishful thinking. The dream that one has awoken is the exact inversion of the state Benjamin desires, dormiveglia, that Proustian moment when one is genuinely suspended halfway between sleep and waking and can look around a bedroom (at Balbec) and not know where one is for a moment – a fugitive state of liberation. The inversion of the state of dormiveglia is of course deeper illusion.

While some of this critique seems to have misogyny mixed into it, the dialectical relation that Benjamin posits in Jugendstil between infertility and liberation has a positive potential as well. Its threatening nature, however, exposes why Binet’s gate would have been at once appropriate for the Exposition Universelle and highly contested; successful in the design competition against other figures such as Alphonse Mucha and yet destroyed at the end of the Exposition instead of saved, like the Eiffel Tower, or transported elsewhere, like the Crystal Palace. The Porte Monumentale worked on the level of an analogy with the natural world, rather than a radical laying-bare of its own structure. Walter Benjamin notes that Art Nouveau, or Jugendstil, was directly influenced by technological developments, and particularly iron construction, excelling in turning iron supports into ornamentation and foregrounding hollow or empty spaces over lines and figuration. “Among the stylistic elements that enter into Jugendstil from iron construction and technical design, one of the most important is the predominance of the vide over the plein, the empty over the full” (S4, 6) On one hand, Jugendstil may wish to imitate the life cycle of plants and inorganic crystals, but instead ends up representing too much empty space right at the crucial moment of threshold; an empty womb, a metamorphosis that was frozen instead of fecund and alive. On the other hand, Jugendstil’s very emptiness, and its similarity to a fleeting dream, may be precisely what made it emancipatory.

Fig. 5: A Suchard brand chocolate wrapper from 1900 with a color image of the Porte Monumental.

Susan Buck-Morss writes that “It’s not the world fair buildings themselves that were the utopian dream of the future cited by so many – not least, ironically, Benjamin – but, in fact their ephemerality: the speed with which they were thrown up and then demolished (or built specifically for quick disassembly, like the Crystal Palace).”23This must be understood dialectically, of course. At their worst, the World Fairs fetishized change by commercializing, art, technological invention, and even human beings from colonized portions of the globe who were put on display in temporary villages. Yet at their best, the ephemerality of World Fair buildings enables a fantasy for spectators of being freed from monuments, freed from the burden of the past and of historical memory. And the Fairs made palpable the sensation of time itself accelerating, an experience usually only sensed unconsciously. As suggested by the contemporary journalist copy surrounding the event, which placed it securely in the shadow of the Dreyfus Affair, the colonial confrontation with Britain at Fashoda, and the barely sublimated competition with Germany over the 1896 World Fair that had so recently taken place in Berlin, a cloud of international conflict and rapid change lay just below the surface at the 1900 Exposition Universelle, a promise visible only in cipher, hidden in the implied destruction of traditional ways of life that was a subtext of technological progress. Modernity finally seems threatening as well as thrilling at the 1900 World Fair. In Benjamin’s existential phrase: “Fashion, like architecture, lives in the darkness of the lived moment.”24

  1. Joel Smith, The Life and Death of Buildings (New Haven: Princeton Art Museum, 2011), 13. 

  2. Jacques Derrida,  Archive Fever, trans. Eric Prenowitz (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1996), 2. 

  3. Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time, vol. 1., trans. Lydia Davis (New York: Viking, 2003), 47. 

  4. Walter Benjamin, Arcades Project, trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999), 7. 

  5. Hermione Hobhouse, The Crystal Palace and the Great Exhibition: Art, Science, and Productive Industry (London: Continuum, 2002), 35. 

  6. Sylvain Ageorges, Sur les traces des Expositions universelles Paris 1855-1937 (Paris: Parigramme, 2006), 105. 

  7. Benjamin, Arcades Project [F2, 9]. 

  8. Benjamin, Arcades Project [G4, 4]. 

  9. Frederick Brown, “Eiffel’s Tower,” New England Review 29. 4 (2008): 8.  

  10. Benjamin, Arcades Project [G1, 1]. 

  11. Benjamin, Arcades Project [G16a, 1]. 

  12. Benjamin, Arcades Project [G16a, 3]. 

  13. Raymond Duchamp-Villon,  L’architecture et la fer: la tour Eiffel (Paris: L’Echoppe, 1994), 17.  

  14. Duchamp-Villon, L’architecture et la fer, 17. 

  15. Victor Hugo, Oeuvres completes: poésie, vol. 6 (Paris: Eugène Renduel, 1837), 67. My translation: “the sites where Paris was.” 

  16. Roland Barthes, The Eiffel Tower and Other Mythologies, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1979), 7. 

  17. Barthes, The Eiffel Tower, 5. 

  18. Barthes, The Eiffel Tower, 4. 

  19. Cited in Barry Bergdoll, “Natural History and Debates on the Form of a New Architecture in the Nineteenth Century,” Architectural History 50 (2007): 25. 

  20. Ruth Iskin, Modern Women and Parisian Consumer Culture in Impressionist Painting (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007), p 223. 

  21. Arthur Chandler, “The Paris Exposition Universelle of 1900.” Expanded and revised from World’s Fair 7.3 (1987).

  22. Chandler, “The Paris Exposition.” 

  23. Susan Buck-Morss, Dreamworld and Catastrophe: The Passing of Mass Utopia in East and West (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002). 

  24. Benjamin, Arcades Project [K2a 4]. 

Article: Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial 3.0 Unported License.