The Hollywood Sign and the Eiffel Tower: Monuments to Modernity, With Differences
October 25, 2011 § 3 Comments
The monument that is mentioned most frequently in conversations about the Hollywood Sign is the Eiffel Tower, and for good reason. Both became icons by accident, having been conceived as temporary structures, and grew to represent the cities in which they are located. Both were built during the Machine Age and project the dynamism of that era. Finally, both monuments are abstract symbols, allowing their admirers to imbue them with a variety of meanings. Just as the Hollywood Sign can symbolize the movie industry, fame, or its physical location, the Eiffel Tower can embody the Belle Epoque, the City of Paris or a triumph of engineering.
There are, however, important differences. While Gustave Eiffel’s iron masterpiece wasn’t supposed to be permanent, it certainly looks as if it were built for the ages. An engineering marvel, it was the tallest man-made structure in the world upon its completion in 1889. Its base, particularly the curved spans that support its legs, somehow manages to be both massive and delicate. To stand under it, as I did during a recent visit, is to see a breathtaking array of lacy patterns whose beauty belies their strength. As charming as the Tower is from a distance, it provides an even greater visual thrill a close range.
By contrast, in its original incarnation (1923-1978) the Hollywood Sign wasn’t engineered at all. The letters were anchored from behind by telephone poles, rather than bolted to a foundation. Unsurprisingly, over the years assorted letters were knocked down by windstorms and, in the case of the H, by an out-of-control car driven by the Sign’s caretaker, Albert Kothe. After the old Sign was torn down in 1978, its replacement–the present-day version–was skillfully engineered. Caissons were sunk into the bedrock, and the new corrugated steel letters were bolted to a heavy steel scaffolding. In its 33-year history, the current Sign has never moved, whether during earthquakes or windstorms, or required any repairs.
Perhaps because both my grandfathers were engineers, I have a great fondness for the back of the Hollywood Sign, where its support structure can be seen. The helicopter pilot on my aerial shoot told me that, to his knowledge, I was the only person who ever shot the back of the Sign. I also shot the back from the ground at close range, both on video and in still photos.
The front of the Sign is another story. At close range, its corrugated steel resembles nothing more than an industrial fence, and projects the same appeal. The Hollywood Sign can only be appreciated at a distance, where its 45-foot letters can be read.
Which brings me to another difference. The fact that the Hollywood Sign is composed of letters that make up a word sets it apart symbolically from the Eiffel Tower. Though both monuments represent modernity, the Sign’s “wordness” (to quote Leo Braudy) gives it an abstraction that goes beyond any meaning attributed to the Eiffel Tower. By virtue of its height, the Eiffel Tower projects a common message that the Hollywood Sign does not. Which, of course, explains the Sign’s appeal to tourists in search of a photo opportunity. Standing in front of the Eiffel Tower, you’re an ant–albeit one that has traveled to Paris. But in front of the blank white letters of the Hollywood Sign, it’s all about you, the potential Hollywood star.
Yes, there are similarities between the monuments, but they are greatly outweighed by some very important differences. If nothing else, it needs to be emphasized that the Tour Eiffel was consciously conceived and constructed to be an important symbol of French industrial power and engineering skill. I ran across a wonderful quote about the three great engineering feats of the 19th century that went something like this: The Brooklyn Bridge spanned space; the Crystal Palace enclosed space; the Eiffel Tower pierced space. And of the three of them, the Tower was unprecedented.
It is also about the Great Revolution: remember, the Tower was built to commemorate the centennial of the storming of the Bastille in 1789. This means it is also–and this is important–a symbol of Republican France: look, the Tower says, what a nation of free and equal citizens can do.
All of this is to say that the Tower *always had meaning.* It was intended to physically illustrate la gloire de France, and it has succeeded beyond the Third Republic’s wildest dreams. (It could also be noted that in this sense, the Tower was always a *public* monument, in contrast to the Hollywood sign).
(Also, yes, they are both engineered…in the sense that Yugos and Formula One cars are both engineered. I loves myself some Hollywood sign and all its mythos and meanings, but we shouldn’t exaggerate…).
I think the most interesting thing to explore is indeed how new and different kinds of meanings were projected onto both the sign and the Tower, how they stormed into the popular imagination (in the case of the latter), or slyly slid into it (in the case of the latter).
Well, I’ll go back to lurking now…I really enjoy your blog!
Thanks for your erudite comment–keep reading!
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