When completed in 1889, the Eiffel Tower – the Iron Lady of Paris – was to stand for 20 years before being dismantled. One hundred and thirty-three years later, the tower is still standing, less by design than by diligent maintenance.
Now, however, confidential reports leaked to French magazine Marianne suggest the monument is in poor condition and riddled with rust. The tower is in need of a full repair, it is claimed, but instead is only receiving a cosmetic makeover for the 2024 Olympics in Paris.
“If Gustave Eiffel visited the place, he would have a heart attack,” an unnamed tower official told Marianne.
The 324 meter high, 7,300 ton iron tower was built for the 1889 World’s Fair. It has about 2.5m of rivets and was constructed using iron, invented in Great Britain. Britain during the Industrial Revolution through a process that produced high quality, purer wrought iron by removing carbon from cast iron in the smelting process. Before it opened, it received four coats of red lead paint, now banned but then considered the best anti-corrosion agent.
Eiffel, the civil engineer whose company designed and built the monument, said identifying and stopping the spread of rust was the biggest challenge to the building’s longevity and suggested he would have to be repainted every seven years. “Paint is the essential ingredient to protect a metal structure and the care with which it is carried out is the only guarantee of its longevity,” he wrote at the time. “The most important thing is to prevent the onset of rust.”
The tower is undergoing a 60 million euro repaint ahead of the 2024 Olympics, the 20th time the monument has been repainted. A third of the tower needed to be stripped and then have two new coats applied. However, the delays in the work caused by the Covid and the presence of worrying levels of lead in the old paint mean that only 5% will be treated.
Experts told Marianne the job was just a cosmetic facelift and predicted the end result would be “dismal”. They say the tower needs to be completely stripped of metal, repaired and repainted, and that painting over old paint makes the corrosion worse.
The company that oversees the tower, Sete, which is 99% owned by the town hall, is reluctant to close it for a long time because of the tourism revenue that would be lost. The tower receives around 6 million visitors in a typical year, making it the fourth most visited cultural site in France after Disneyland, the Louvre and the Palace of Versailles. Its forced closure by Covid in 2020 resulted in a loss of revenue of 52 million euros.
A 2010 report said: “Sète must review the Eiffel Tower and propose a completely new maintenance policy centered on testing the aging metal structure.
A second report in 2014 by Expiris, an expert painting company, found that the tower had cracks and rust and that only 10% of the newer paint on the tower was adhering to the structure. “Even if the general condition of the corrosion protection looks good to the eye, it can be deceiving,” he said. “It is not possible to foresee a new application of a coat of paint which would only increase the risk of a total loss of adhesion of the system.”
Bernard Giovannoni, head of Expiris and author of the 2014 report, told Marianne: “I have been working on the tower for several years. In 2014, I considered that there was an extreme urgency to deal with corrosion. He said he advised the tower be “stripped and repainted”.
A third report in 2016 revealed 884 flaws, including 68 that would pose a risk to the “durability” of the structure. Each of the defects was photographed, numbered and classified according to the degree of seriousness.
An expert told Marianne that while the original coats of paint were still strong “and continued to protect the metal in many places”, the new partial refurbishment would not address the high lead levels or rust and risked damage. worsen the condition of the tower. .
“At best it will be virtually useless, but at worst it will aggravate defects in the existing paint layer and lead to corrosion,” they said.
On the site of the tower, Bertrand Lemoine, architect, engineer and historian, gives a more optimistic view. He says the enemy of iron is corrosion, caused by the oxidation of iron exposed to air and water. But he says that if it were repainted, the Eiffel Tower could last forever.