What’s So Great About the Eiffel Tower? 70 Questions That Will Change the Way You Think About Architecture by Jonathan Glancey – review

These engaging essays on global landmarks show that our opinions aren’t set in stone

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All buildings are temporary, said the great architectural thinker Cedric Price, but some are more temporary than others. In other words, even something as enduring as the Parthenon and the pyramids will one day go. And even before they disappear, these seemingly fixed and eternal objects are in constant flux. Not only do they weather, decay and get altered, but they change in public perception. An eyesore can become a landmark, a pagan temple can become a church, a symbol of tyranny can become a popular icon.

These paradoxical truths have allowed Jonathan Glancey, formerly architecture critic of the Guardian, to have a bit of fun. In What’s So Great About the Eiffel Tower? he finds 70 examples of buildings whose backstories are not as you might imagine. The title refers to Exhibit A in the case of the changeability of architectural perception, the fact that what is now one of the world’s most popular structures was originally opposed by 300 members of the French cultural elite.

There are other famous examples – the controversies of cost and design that went into the Sydney Opera House or the fact that the Parthenon, celebrated in modern times for its chaste white marble, was originally painted in bright colours. He explores the way that history gets faked, in the 19th-century rebuilding of the medieval walls of Carcassonne, for example, or in the making of Chartres Cathedral, in a recent over-restoration, into a “venal playpen for passing coach parties”.

Workmen on the Eiffel Tower in 1924
Workmen on the Eiffel Tower in 1924. Photograph: Bettmann Archive

 

The book tweaks the tails of a few sacred cows. It shows what an impure and sometimes mucky affair architecture can be, its aspirations to beauty emerging out of greed, conflict and politics. It reminds that Sinan, revered architect of many of Istanbul’s most conspicuous mosques, was essentially a government bureaucrat, and that some famous architects flirted opportunistically with Nazism and Stalinism. Or, in the case of the Austrian Adolf Loos, with paedophilia.

 

This is a book of snacks. It doesn’t bear the marks of deep research and for those in the business many of its examples will be well worn. It’s more engaging when it takes the paths slightly less well trodden, when looking at a beautiful church by the Uruguayan engineer Eladio Dieste or at the extraordinarily prolific architect to both Henry Ford and the Soviet state, Albert Kahn. It’s not a bad introduction to a discipline that sometimes suffers from self-importance and it’s a useful reminder that things are not usually what they seem.

What’s So Great About the Eiffel Tower? 70 Questions That Will Change the Way You Think About Architecture by Jonathan Glancey is published by Laurence King (£12.99). To order a copy for £11.04 go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99