European Architecture Series
Gustave Eiffel

French Engineer, Expert in Wrought-Iron, Renowned for Eiffel Tower.

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see: Architecture Glossary.

Gustave Eiffel (1832-1923)


Training and Early Works
Career as an Engineer
Eiffel & Cie Partnership
World Fair (1878)
Compagnie des Etablissements Eiffel
Statue of Liberty
Eiffel Tower (1887-89)
Panama Scandal
Architectural Projects
Articles on 19th-Century Architecture

Garabit Viaduct (1884)
Ruynes-en-Margeride, Cantal.
Designed by Gustave Eiffel.
Compare the Victorian architecture
of Isambard Kingdom Brunel and
Joseph Paxton.

Budapest Railway Station (1885-7)
Vienna-Budapest Terminal.
Designed by Gustave Eiffel.



One of France's "greatest architects", Gustave Eiffel is best known for designing and building Paris's most famous landmark, the Eiffel Tower, which was erected in record time between January 1887 and March 1889. He also helped to design another iconic work of 19th century architecture - Bartholdi's Statue of Liberty (1870-86) in New York harbour - for which he created the supporting metal framework. His other major architectural projects included Budapest Railway Station (1876) and the dome of Nice Observatory (1886). Although Eiffel's expertise lay essentially in architecture and engineering, notably in the structural properties and performance of wrought-iron, his most famous monuments are regarded as unique examples of public art, rather than mere engineering achievements. In addition to these works, Eiffel is also noted for numerous technically demanding bridges which he built in France and elsewhere. These include the the Bordeaux railway bridge, the Garabit viaduct in southern France, as well as the Maria Pia bridge carrying the Lisbon to Porto railway across the river Douro, in Portugal. In later life, Eiffel focused his attention on meteorology and aerodynamics, making important contributions in both fields. A talented and highly creative man who was also in the right place at the right time, he remains a major contributor to modern art whose key achievements remain unequalled to this day.

Training and Early Works

Born in Dijon, in the Cote-d'Or, his parents' business commitments meant that he spent most of his childhood living with his grandmother. He attended the Lycee Royal in Dijon, where he gained his baccalaureats in science and humanities. He was also encouraged by his uncle (an industrialist), and Michel Perret (a chemist), both of whom introduced him to the complexities of chemistry and mining. From Dijon, Eiffel went to Paris where he attended the College Sainte-Barbe as a stepping stone to winning a place at the Ecole Centrale des Arts et Manufactures (ECP) (Central School of Arts and Manufacturing) - one of the most prestigious engineering schools in the country. Specializing in chemistry, he graduated in 1855, 13th out of a class of 80.

After graduating, Eiffel worked briefly for the Compagnie des Chemins de Fer de l'Ouest, for whom he produced his first bridge design - a 22 metre-long iron bridge for the Saint Germaine railway. After this he was offered a job as head of the research department of Compagnie Belge de Materiels de Chemin de Fer, a firm making materials for railways. In 1857 the company was commissioned to build a railway bridge over the river Garonne at Bordeaux. This involved the construction of a 500 metre (1,600 ft) iron girder bridge supported by six pairs of stone pillars on the river bed. The foundations were made with the help of compressed air caissons and hydraulic rams, both experimental techniques at the time. To begin with, Eiffel was given the task of assembling the metalwork but in the end took over responsibility for the entire project. A successful outcome not only led to his promotion as principal engineer for the company, but also drew him to the attention of influential figures including the structural engineer Stanislas de la Roche Toulay (1817-81), the engineer-politician Jean Baptiste Krantz (1817-99) and the German engineer Wilhelm Nordling (1821-1908).

Career as an Engineer

Despite further promotion within the company, a decline in its fortunes prompted Eiffel to resign and set up on his own in 1864, as an independent consulting engineer. He became an entrepreneur specializing in metallic frameworks and a strong advocate of iron because of its elasticity, lightness and resistance, as well as its easy storage and assembly. He already had independent contracts for the construction of two railway stations, at Toulouse and Agen, to which he added, in 1866, a contract to oversee the construction of thirty locomotives for the Egyptian government, during the course of which he visited the Suez Canal which was being constructed by the French diplomat and businessman Ferdinand de Lesseps (1805-94). On top of all this he was hired by Jean-Baptiste Kranz to help design the exhibition hall for the 1867 Exposition Universelle (World Fair) in Paris. This involved designing and building the arch girders of the Galerie des Machines, in the course of which he learned a huge amount about the structural properties of cast iron.



Eiffel & Cie Partnership

In late 1866 Eiffel established his own workshops in the Paris suburb of Levallois-Perret. This allowed him to take greater control over future projects: not only would he design, he would also manufacture. His first major commission was for two viaducts carrying the railway line between Bordeaux and Lyon. In addition, he also won several overseas contracts, including the all-metal prefabricated church of San Marcos in Arica, Chile.

In October 1868 Eiffel entered into partnership with the Belgian engineer Theophile Seyrig (1843-1923), forming the company Eiffel et Cie. In 1875, the company was commissioned to design and build the Budapest-Nyugati Palyaudvar - the terminal station for the Vienna to Budapest railway, in Budapest. Instead of hiding the metallic skeleton of the railway station behind an elaborate facade, as usual, Eiffel and Seyrig made it the centrepiece of the entire building, flanked on both sides by conventional stone structures, housing administrative offices. The station opened on time in October 1877.

In 1875 Eiffel & Cie won another prestigious contract - this time for the Royal Portuguese Railway Company - to design and build a 563-metre bridge (Maria Pia Bridge, commonly known as Ponte Dona Maria) carrying the mainline Lisbon to Porto railway across the river Douro. Owing to the depth and speed of the river, no pillars could be used to support the bridge, which would have to have a central span of 160 metres in length - longer than the record-breaking 156 metre Mississippi bridge built at St Louis by James B Eads. Built out of wrought-iron, Eiffel's bridge was supported by five iron piers, underpinned by a central supporting arch. Work began in January 1876 and was completed in October 1877: the bridge was opened by Portuguese Queen Maria Pia, after whom it was named.

World Fair, Paris (1878)

The Paris World Fair (Exposition Universelle) in 1878 sealed Eiffel's growing reputation as one of the leading designers and structural engineers in France. As well as showcasing models and drawings of successfully completed architectural projects to a wide range of influential visitors to his stand, Eiffel could also point to several buildings at the exhibition itself which he had also designed and erected. They included the pavilion for the Paris Gas Company, which was Eiffel's first collaborative venture with Stephen Sauvestre (1847-1919), who later became head of the company's architectural office.

Compagnie des Etablissements Eiffel

In 1879 the partnership with Seyrig was dissolved, and the assets were renamed the Compagnie des Etablissements Eiffel. Almost immediately, on the the strength of the Maria Pia Bridge project, Eiffel was commissioned to construct the Garabit viaduct, a railway bridge near Ruynes en Margeride in the Cantal. To help him in the project he recruited several individuals who were later to play instrumental roles in the design of the Eiffel Tower. They included Maurice Koechlin (1856-1946), a young graduate of the Zurich Polytechnikum, and Emile Nouguier (1840-98), who had assisted on the construction of the Ponte Dona Maria. At the same time Eiffel began to create a system of standardised prefabricated bridges, for use in Cochin-China, the southern part of French Indochina.

Statue of Liberty

In 1881 Eiffel was contacted by Auguste Bartholdi (1834-1904), one of France's most respected 19th century sculptors, who needed additional engineering expertise in order to complete the Statue of Liberty, after the death of Eugene Viollet-le-Duc (1814-79). Eiffel was chosen because of his expertise with iron and wind-stress. In the end, Eiffel designed a brand new internal iron framework to support the copper body of the statue, and the entire structure was first erected at the Eiffel works in Paris before being disassembled and shipped to the United States. (The pedestal of the statue was designed separately in America by Richard Morris Hunt: 1827-95.)

Eiffel Tower (1887-89)

The Tower was Eiffel's successful design-submission for a structural centrepiece for the 1889 World Fair in Paris, to commemorate the centenary of the French Revolution. The initial design was done by Maurice Koechlin and Emile Nouguier, with extra suggestions (decorative arches at the base and the crowning cupola) from Stephen Sauvestre. The final design featured a giant pylon, made up of four legs set apart at the base but drawing together as they rose, eventually coming together at the top. Each leg consisted of a lattice-like frame of wrought-iron girders, and all four legs were connected to each other by metal trusses at regular intervals.

Despite a good deal of controversy (over how Eiffel's submission came to be accepted) as well as criticism over the aesthetics (ugliness) of the proposed wrought iron structure, the Eiffel Tower was constructed in record time (2 years and 7 weeks) with no fatal injuries among the 300-strong on-site labour force. Eiffel's fee was 25 percent of his costs. In return, to help him recover the balance and make a profit, he was given exclusive rights to the tower for the next 20 years. As it was, he recouped all his costs within 12 months and went on to make a fortune. The tower was completed in March 1889. Since then, more than 250 million tourists have visited it - obliterating the petty concerns of Eiffel's critics in the process - making it one of the great works of avant-garde art and an icon of French culture.

Panama Scandal

In 1888, Eiffel became embroiled in a scandal caused by the sudden bankruptcy of the French Panama Canal Company, headed by Ferdinand de Lesseps, which had been commissioned to build a canal across the Panama Isthmus. Although merely a contractor hired to design the canal locks, Eiffel became caught up in the financial scandal that followed, being charged along with the directors with raising money under false pretenses and misuse of funds. In 1893 he was found guilty on the charge of misuse of funds, and sentenced to two years in prison. Fortunately, he was acquitted on appeal.


Just before his trial, Eiffel resigned from the Compagnie des Etablissements Eiffel, abandoned construction and went into retirement, dedicating the rest of his life to scientific experiments involving meteorology and aerodynamics. In this way he discovered valuable uses for the Eiffel Tower: a meteorological station and a giant radio antenna. Indeed it was because of its value in these areas that the structure was allowed to remain in situ. He died at home in Paris at the age of 91, allegedly while listening to the opening movement of Beethoven's 5th symphony.

During his later years he would undoubtedly have been delighted to see his faith in metal frames confirmed by others - especially in American architecture - as iron and steel replaced masonry and stone in the design and construction of tall buildings throughout the world. In any event he was an important pioneer in the use of metal structures which are now commonplace in skyscraper architecture, and in many other applications of 20th-century architecture across the globe.

For more about progressive designers and their use of metal structures, please see: American Architects (c.1700-2000).

Architectural Projects

Here is a short selection of some of the buildings, bridges and viaducts designed and constructed by Gustave Eiffel, in addition to those cited above.

- Railway Station, Toulouse, France (1862)
- Church of Notre Dame des Champs, Paris (1867)
- River Sioule Viaduct, Puy-de-Dome, France (1867)
- Synagogue in Rue de Pasarelles, Paris (1867)
- Neuvial Viaduct, Gannat, Auvergne, France (1867)
- Swing Bridge, Dieppe, France (1870)
- Gasworks, La Paz, Bolivia (1873)
- Gasworks, Tacna, Peru (1873)
- Cathedral of San Pedro de Tacna, Peru (1875)
- Pont Eiffel, Girona, Spain (1876)
- Eiffel Bridge, Ungheni, between Moldova and Romania (1877)
- Ruhnu Lighthouse, Ruhnu island, Estonia (1877)
- Eiffel Bridge, Viana do Castelo, Portugal (1878)
- Coura Bridge, Caminha, Portugal (1878)
- Cubzac Bridge, Dordogne River, France (1880)
- Tisza Bridge, Szeged, Hungary (1881)
- Grand Hotel Traian, Iasi, Romania (1882)
- Colbert Bridge, Dieppe, France (1888)
- Paradis Latin theatre, Paris, France (1889)
- Casa de Fierro, Iquitos, Peru (1892)
- Imbaba Bridge, Cairo, Egypt (1892)
- Souleuvre Viaduct, La Ferriere-Harang, Normandy, France (1893)
- Church of Santa Barbara, Santa Rosalia, Mexico (1896)

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