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Size Matters

Ayla Lepine reviews Colossal: Engineering the Suez Canal, Statue of Liberty, Eiffel Tower and Panama Canal by Darcy Grimaldo Grigsby

The image of the engineer as both megalomaniac and impresario was a common 19th-century trope. It was widely believed that for better or for worse, the engineer’s skillset would determine the success or failure of the modern city. In 1835, Emile Péreire, caught up in post-Napoleonic attempts to create the Suez Canal, calmly asserted that: ‘For me it is not enough to have traced my gigantic programmes on paper, rather I want to write my idea on the earth.’

The globe as blank canvas was a concept that defined imperial and structural ambitions alike. Massive projects are difficult to grasp and to manage, both in their execution and their interpretation. Immensity is disorientating. For the Panama and Suez Canals, which were designed to divert, widen and radically alter geography to permit bulk trade on an unprecedented scale, pride and ingenuity were inextricably tied together on a world stage.

The Eiffel Tower’s audacious uselessness marked it as a monument to progress itself, allegorising the engineering ingenuity that gave modern structures their common frameworks, regardless of their diverse functions. The Statue of Liberty transformed the infinitely mutable yet indisputably fundamental American concept of freedom into a towering symbol, the scale and complexity of which united engineering’s vast calculations with sculpture’s fluid artfulness.

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All civilisations are reduced to their highest points by our obsession with scale. It is a moronically simple measure for progress according to which bigger always means better

As an art historian, Darcy Grimaldo Grigsby’s broad aim over a long career has been to illuminate unexpected aspects of visual culture by turning to the nuanced, contradictory, and ego-driven ways that people portray themselves and one another.

Colossal’s purpose is to expose the underplayed micro-level histories that supported the world’s most famous macro-projects, demonstrating how four huge objects by French 19th-century engineers were vessels for outrageous ambition and minute twists of fate.

The real kick in this richly illustrated book is, however, delivered to contemporary continuities of a centuries-old obsession with size: ‘man-made enormity was originally an expression of power and unassailable authority; it now verges on kitsch and hallucination, even humiliation,’ claims Grimaldo Grigsby. She explains that: ‘To seek status on the basis of size alone is an exercise doomed to failure. It always was.’

Grimaldo Grigsby explains that when embarking on the project she ‘came to appreciate how effectively colossal scale obscures the criminality of human aggression and the ruthlessness of capitalism with a rhetoric of progress and the altruistic engineering of global commerce’. Those who worked on these projects therefore came more fully into the frame in Grimaldo Grigsby’s book than had been accomplished in previous studies.

The value of this compilation of four case studies in modern iconic engineering is its ability to use unusual and rare visual material − from models and stereoscopic photographs to souvenirs and posters − to form ways of understanding these huge endeavours that encapsulate their grand achievements and their equally large-scale consequences.

In 1854, the French naturalist writer brothers Edmond and Jules de Goncourt gravely predicted that ‘Industry will kill art’. In Jules Verne’s recently discovered novel Paris in the Twentieth Century, written on the precipice between the 19th century’s unmitigated industrialisation and the 20th’s looming unknown futures, he looks forward into a dystopian metropolis hacked apart by brash, unrelenting commerce.

One voice in this novel asks, ‘What has killed art?’ Another replies that machinery is to blame: ‘mechanics, engineers, technicians − devil take me if Raphael, Titian, Veronese, and Leonardo could ever have come into being! They’d have had to compete with mechanical procedures, and they’d have starved to death! Ah, machinery!’

Narratives of engineering projects that celebrate their scale and status tend to overlook the political and commercial forces that produced them. It is rare that the Eiffel Tower is discussed in relation to an age in which the breadth and sophistication of engineering also took loss of life into account in a relatively sanguine way: ‘so much so engineers and industrialists became accustomed to calculating how many human lives a project might “cost” and how those costs might alter profits’.

With the proliferation of plastic and metal souvenirs, a whole city contained within a single object could be reduced to a diminutive, highly reproducible, and very affordable trinket. The immensity of a colossal monument was made almost absurdly manageable. Paris or New York could be microcosmically located in the Eiffel Tower or the Statue of Liberty, and then inserted into your pocket.

Souvenirs reversed the dynamics of social power embedded in these projects. Popular composite images comparing the height of tall buildings nested cultural achievements inside one another like Russian dolls, showing that the Eiffel Tower dwarfed the pyramids and implying that for all its historical richness, France had usurped ancient Egypt. Colossal engineering became a shorthand for cultural prowess as never before.

Grimaldo Grigsby responds to this modern pastime of comparing size by ending the book with an appraisal of tall structures from more recent decades, criticising the perpetual ambition to build tall in light of the close investigation of 19th-century French projects.

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Is that the Eiffel Tower in your pocket, or are you pleased to see me? Gargantuan erections are snipped down to size and reproduced as popular souvenirs, symbols of their places of origin and of our having been there

Renzo Piano’s Shard (1,016 feet) is practically pint-sized compared with Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates’ 2008 Shanghai World Financial Center (1,614 feet). Nothing comes close to the ferocious scale of Dubai’s Burj Khalifa (2,700 feet), designed by Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, and named after the benefactor who offered a near-instantaneous bail-out of billions for Dubai in 2009.

Anish Kapoor’s Olympics contribution, the Orbit Tower, is a twisted amalgam of skyscraper culture, colossal history, and the specific forms and ambitions of a very 19th-century inheritance. Projects claiming that they are the tallest and the most ‘iconic’ in a given country, a region, or a continent, contain more than a pinch of melancholy.

If yet another tall glass tower’s distinction is its sheer size, some other tower − with some other colossal pricetag and debatable motives and functions − will soon supersede it. The inevitability of high structures, regardless of their purpose, materials, or local contexts, is Grimaldo Grigsby’s real subject.

Why build tall? Whether we focus on hubris, hyperbole, technical innovation on a grand scale, or too-often hidden human consequences and loss of life that attends many of these oversized projects, there is a single bottom line which is always declared in every single one of these endeavours: the simplistic and usually unquestioned equation of height with progress.

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