In Celebration of our Independence

June 29th, 2010

     

     

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
                                             – Emma Lazarus

These words, written fittingly on the base of the Statue of Liberty, are the basic promise our country was built upon. We asked not for the educated, the wealthy, and the prosperous, but the wretched refuse and the poor. This symbolic representation of the liberties our countrymen fought for was, as is well known, not native-made, but a gift from our political ally, France. The statue's structure was designed by Frenchmen, Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc and Gustav Eiffel, who were well-known for their work with iron in both architecture and bridge design, while sculptor Frédéric Auguste designed the likeness of our lady to resemble of his mother. The statue was completed in 1886, and for a time, it was a shining golden bronze beacon of hope to the masses of immigrants that laid eyes on it before setting step ashore.

France celebrates its independence from monarch rule just 10 days after the American celebration of independence. Inspired by the political reformation in America, the French Revolution began symbolically with the storming of the Bastille (prison) on July 14, 1789, which had come to represent King Louis XVI's absolute power and rule. Before Eiffel had gained international fame for constructing the Tour en Fer de Trois Cent Metres (the Eiffel Tower), he provided America with an icon to blatantly state our triumph from under British rule. The 1889 Paris World's Fair was his time to provide the French with a symbol of their own, a century after their revolution. From the start, his tower was vehemently opposed by artists, politicians, and the upper-class citizens who resided in the fashionable district surrounding the Champ de Mars. However, as his monstrosity grew in height, so too it grew in elegance and favor. Upon completion, as the world's tallest structure, it glorified the French ingenuity in engineering, but was also a tasteful icon of power and democracy through its utilitarian, playful, yet forceful design. Eiffel solidified this message by engraving not the names of royalty in the tower's first floor frieze, but instead, as he said, with "the names of the greatest men of science who have honored France, from 1789, down to our day." The future belonged to those who dreamed, who strove to achieve against the odds.

At an exposition designed to display the greatest advancements in the sciences and arts, it is interesting to note that one visiting painter, who ironically was rejected from the official French exhibition of art, Paul Gauguin, remarked upon seeing the Eiffel Tower, "Of course this exhibition sees the triumph of iron, not only with regard to machines but also with regard to architecture. And yet architecture is at a new beginning in the sense that it lacks an artistic form of decoration consistent with the new material….It's up to the architect-engineers to come up with a new art of decoration, such as ornamental bolts, iron corners jutting beyond the main outline, a sort of gothic lacework of iron. To some extent this is what we find in the Eiffel Tower." As the first melding of utility and style, the Eiffel Tower could be seen as the first precursor to the functionalist mentality of early modernism.

France may have regarded (and may still regard) the Americans as wild, uncultured, and uncouth, but they admired the tenacity and bull-headed bravery that, in my opinion, has become ingrained in our being. We have our follies and political missteps, but I find solace in the fact that Americans won't keep quiet when it comes to an injustice. On that note, vive l'indépendance!

Caroline Engel for Danish Teak Classics

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