Protecting the Eiffel Tower: It's a wall, not an aesthetic perimeter

4 minutes to read
Column
Thao Nguyen
16/10/2017

Tourists in search for an auratic experience of the mythical Eiffel Tower may soon be facing a souvenir. Last month, the Council of Paris has approved the installation of a permanent 2.5 meters high bulletproof glass wall around the base of the iconic monument of the City of Light. This barrier, to be erected on two sides of the tower, is part of a series of new security measures for the Eiffel Tower, including metal fencing enclosing the two other sides, security check points, bollards, and a video surveillance system – as detailed in a statement released by the Mayor of Paris.

The motivation for this enterprise is, quite predictably, counterterrorism. According to Parisian officials, the high alert level in Paris demands tightened protection of key sites that are vulnerable to potential terror attacks. However, when announcing the project, City Hall emphasized aesthetics as the primary objective: “The Lady of Iron gets a face-lift”, the article enthusiastically says. In an interview with franceinfo, Jean-François Martins, the deputy mayor of Paris, who is responsible for tourism, stresses that the wall will be designed with an absolute transparency as to blend in with the landscape. He also insists that it will bring greater comfort to visitors.

It is intriguing to see how security, the very reason that prompts the urgency to mount the wall in the first place, is relegated to the last rank when politicians make a case to the public. Most noticeably, politicians seem to drain their repertoires of euphemism to call the new infrastructure anything but a wall. “It’s not a wall, it’s an aesthetic perimeter”, says the deputy mayor. Here is where the official discourse strikes one as ambiguous: the authorities want to reassure citizens by the tangible presence of a security device; at the same time, they do not want it to be perceived as such. With the controversy surrounding Trump’s southern border wall, the reluctance to employ the term is understandable. However, when a wall is put up, it should be called as it is.

The authorities want to reassure citizens by the tangible presence of a security device; at the same time, they do not want it to be perceived as such.

What is a wall? According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, “wall” can indicate anything resembling a wall in appearance, function or effect, “that acts as a barrier or defense”. A wall’s essence is the regulation of space and of movement of people, its ultimate purpose being security. Therefore, a wall is not only defined by its materiality, but also by what it does and how it affects other beings and objects, in this case, the visitors, the monument and the landscape.

What would be the potential effects produced by the future glass wall? Firstly, the view onto the Eiffel Tower is certainly disrupted by the glass, which acts like a frame, marking what it shows inside, or behind, as distinct from "reality". No matter how transparent the glass might be, it is not invisible: we see the glass, not the thing. Such interruption in the public space risks provoking a sense of confinement. Interviewed by Le Figaro, a local criticizes the construction of the wall as “illogical”, given the open nature of public space, while another laments the negative visual impact on the site. As for its security effect, the project seems to stir more doubts than to convince citizens. “They had better build a 325 meters high bulletproof wall”, an interviewee ironizes.

Overall, even though the wall has not sparked a heated public debate, incredulity and uncertainty prevail as to its benefits. It is perceived more as an obstacle than as a safeguard. Therefore, It seems plausible that the city’s officials strive to shape a positive view of the new security measure by presenting it as an added value to the site that it will obstruct. Indeed, if justifications for the project are solely based on security, the public “sanctions” would be high if the structure does not perform its security functions effectively, i.e. if it fails to protect visitors in case of new incidents. Therefore, the City Hall needs to defend it on other grounds than security. This makes them argue from the perspective of tourism, but on the logic of security. According to Jean-François Martins, appeasing visitors’ fear of terrorism is the only way to replenish the attractiveness of the city after a series of attacks.

The material wall might be transparent, but the ideological wall is always visible.

By giving the wall a different name, instead of just calling it a wall,, politicians want to prescribe how the public should perceive it. They want to dismiss its obstructing presence and make people accommodate to a new social reality, permanently marked by heightened security. Enclosing the Eiffel Tower with a glass wall is obviously something unusual and unsettling, much like the distinct presence of soldiers and the prolonged emergency state that has become ordinary. The wall is rendered normal, an integral part of everyday life; something that is immediately beneficial to citizens and that does not only function on a preventive logic.

The public space and architecture have become the front line of the fight against terrorism. However, the presence of the wall is antithetical to the core of urban space that is intrinsically open. Stephen Graham, professor of Human Geography at University of Durham (UK), has warned us of the danger of urbanism in terms of apprehending terrorism, which could “make urban life untenable and intolerable”. The risk is that civil liberties such as the freedom to move and interact are given up in the name of fighting terrorism, while security creeps in the functioning logic of every domain in public life.

The material wall might be transparent, but the ideological wall is always visible. This structure is not an innocent blank medium that can be arbitrarily associated with new significations. The social, political and cultural contexts surrounding its conception already load it with meaning. Recognizing it as a wall means being aware of the effect it may produce. Lastly, the Eiffel Tower is not only a tourist attraction. Its surrounding open green space is a place of gathering and rendez-vous, and questions should be asked as to the effects of the implantation of a barrier on the community. Security means being free from care and submission to hegemonic norms, but we must care about, scrutinize and criticize governments' actions as to where public resources are invested in the fight against terrorism. It starts by calling reality by its proper name.