Eiffel tower

Rusty Eiffel Tower Gets A Paint Job; Critics say it takes a lot more

Rust is seen on a pillar of the Eiffel Tower on March 8, 2021, before the start of the 20th painting and stripping campaign, in Paris, France. Chesnot/Getty Images

In May 1889, the Exposition Universelle, or World’s Fair in Paris, introduced millions of visitors to what was called the “300-meter Tower”, a large iron structure puddled at one end of the Champ de Mars. Although many personalities from the arts and letters, such as Charles Garnier and Guy de Maupassant, protested against its construction, the tower was a success, welcoming more than 2 million visitors in the first year. Today, that number is over 6 million a year, and the structure we’re referring to is, of course, the Eiffel Towel, named after its famous engineer, Gustave Eiffel.

With all the traffic on three visitable levels today – restaurants, bars and shops – it’s no surprise that the Eiffel Tower is in need of maintenance. However, the real culprit of its need for maintenance comes from the air – the effects of oxidation, pollution and even bird poo. Like other great monuments, the cost of maintaining the structure is high. To prepare it for the 2024 Paris Olympics, a $60 million (€50 million) renovation project has been launched, according to France 24.

We wondered if the efforts will be enough. Relying on confidential reports, a 2022 article in Marianne argued that the Eiffel Tower is in a sorry state and that its scheduled maintenance leaves much to be desired. Although it needs a “complete repair”, quotes The Guardian, “it is only getting a cosmetic makeover” for the Olympics.

According to the Eiffel Tower’s official website, it receives a full paint job every seven years, a frequency recommended by Eiffel himself and an action plan that is supposed to give it eternal life. The process consists of stripping, cleaning, applying a rust remover and then painting the tower.

Before we get into what is and won’t be, let’s try to better understand the structure itself and why it is in the state it is in.

Build the Eiffel Tower

Although it looks graceful in photos, up close the Eiffel Tower is most notable for its mass. It stands 984 feet (300 meters) high – plus a bit more if you count peaks like flag poles and antennae – and rests on a base measuring 410 feet (125 meters) wide. Its steel frame weighs 7,300 tons (6,622 metric tons).

The shape of the tower is magical, according to Benjamin Schafer, professor of civil and systems engineering at Johns Hopkins University.

“It’s basically the perfect shape to resist wind load,” he says.

Built in just two years, two months and five days, the tower was only meant to last 20 years. But it came in handy for radio and telecommunications transmissions, and of course people from all over the world wanted to visit it. “Since the 1980s, the monument has been regularly renovated, restored and adapted for an ever-growing public”, according to the Eiffel Tower website.

Eiffel Tower

Since its construction 132 years ago, the Eiffel Tower has been painted seven different colors, but maintaining the tower is a battle against the elements, which constantly eat away at its iron frame.

Chesnot/Getty Images

Following its first in situ paint job in 1889, the tower underwent several color changes. Originally, the parts were painted Venetian red, while subsequent paint coats included reddish brown, ocher brown, yellow brown, and brownish red. In 1899, the tower had a golden five-tone gradient ranging from yellow-orange at the base to light yellow at the top. Since 1968, it has been the “Eiffel Tower brown” available in three shades, the darkest at the bottom. If this palette looks dull, it was “chosen for its harmony with the Paris cityscape,” according to the website, but it will be painted a golden hue in time for the Paris Olympics in 2024.

Maintain a metal structure

The Eiffel Tower, designed by two engineers from his firm, Émile Nouguier and Maurice Koechlin, in collaboration with architect Stephen Sauvestre, was the winning design in an open competition for the World Expo scheduled for Paris. Writing in Structure magazine, Roumen V. Mladjov said in 2014 that it “is the materialized symbol of progress during the industrial revolution of the 19th century.”

Despite its precursor to the 19th century, the tower was constructed of iron, not steel, which would become a predominant building material shortly thereafter with the birth of the modern skyscraper.

“It was constructed from the only material that could have constructed this form at the time,” Schafer explains. “Corrosion and fatigue are the two big things we worry about in maintenance.” Fortunately, corrosion, a chemical reaction requiring oxygen and moisture, is a slow process and, like steel, iron can be protected from it by a barrier. This barrier is paint.

Eiffel knew a lot about metal structures and how to make them durable – he had been building iron bridges for nearly three decades by the time construction of the tower began. And the tower design has a lot in common with an arched iron bridge. Take a look at the Ponte Maria Pia that crosses the Douro River in Porto, Portugal, and you’ll see a lot of similarities. Eiffel was the architect of the bridge, which was built between 1876 and 1877.

Now think about bridge maintenance; for example, the Golden Gate Bridge. Its steel structure is painted continuously, but not all at once. The bridge is painted “according to priorities” determined by the progression of corrosion.

Eiffel Tower

Two workers clean the Eiffel Tower using ropes and harnesses, February 7, 2022. For the Paris 2024 Olympic Games, the tower will step back a few decades and regain the golden color it sported at the beginning of the 20th century .

ERIC FEFERBERG/AFP/Getty Images

Maintenance of the Eiffel Tower

The planned refurbishment of the Eiffel Tower ahead of the Olympics included stripping a third of the tower and applying two new coats of paint. However, only 5% will now be treated due to COVID-19 delays and “the presence of worrying levels of lead in the old paint”, according to The Guardian. In addition, the Société d’Exploitation de la Tour Eiffel (SETE), the organization that operates and maintains the tower “under a delegated public service contract with the City of Paris”, is reluctant to lose the income that temporary closure for renovation would bring, according to The Guardian.

As quoted in The Guardian, reports published from 2010 to 2016 noted issues, flaws and concerns regarding the maintenance and condition of the Eiffel Tower. A 2014 by paint company Expiris “found the tower to have cracks and rust and only [10 percent] new tower paint adheres to the structure.”

When they occur, paint campaigns can last anywhere from 18 months to three years, involve around 50 painters, and use 60 tons (54 metric tons) of paint, according to the tower’s website. The balance between tourist demand and maintenance of the site is the responsibility of SETE. The organization set up a monitoring body to assess customer satisfaction, and its 2019 results showed that 96% of visitors who responded would recommend the monument to friends or family.

“It’s an ongoing process to maintain things,” says Schafer. “The Eiffel Tower deserves to be maintained because we love it.”