The Eiffel Tower: And Other Mythologies
by Roland Barthes, trans. by Richard Howard
(University of California) $15.95

A few weeks ago I stumbled upon an essay by Roland Barthes about the Eiffel Tower and was galvanized. If Barthes can make a structure like the Eiffel Tower explode with insights and ideas, imagine what one could make of the Space Needle. Would it be possible to correlate Barthes' ideas about the Eiffel Tower to the Space Needle in such a way as to make the Space Needle suddenly and robustly metaphysical? Could someone equipped with Barthes' perspicacity translate the Needle's obstreperous kitsch into something more sublime and wonderful than anyone suspected? The Tower and the Needle are not dissimilar. Guy de Maupassant, Barthes writes, once remarked that he liked to breakfast at the Eiffel Tower because it was the one place in Paris he was assured of not seeing it. I feel much the same way about the restaurant in the Space Needle.

I came across Barthes' essay in my copy of the first volume of Barthes' Oeuvres Complètes, but it can be found in English, translated by Richard Howard, in The Eiffel Tower: And Other Mythologies. In the essay, Barthes observes that the Eiffel Tower belongs to the universal language of travel. It presents itself to the entire world, both as a symbol of Paris and a symbol of modernity. It is the sign—infinite in scope—of everything that is modern, rambunctious, technical, vertical: rocket, stem, derrick, phallus, lightning rod, or insect. It is the sign—inevitable and grand—of all the trajectories of vision. It is a bridge joining the earth to the sky and providing a view of all the bridges of Paris. It is a pure sign, a degree zero of monuments, which can never be exhausted of meaning, because it wants to mean everything. It evades logic. It is blithely non-utilitarian. It is a grand baroque dream that borders the irrational. It is an expression of utopia and comfort.

In the same way the Tower of Babel was built to communicate with God, the Eiffel Tower was built to serve the essence of art, which is the exultant inutility of its objects. Intended as a Temple to Science, it is essentially a metaphor, a polysemous Polyphemus. Unlike a museum, there is nothing to be seen within: The Tower is an abstraction. Daylight spills through its beams. It confers on us the euphoria of aerial vision. The materials of its construction are in full view; primary among them is steel, an element which participates in the myth of fire, and which permits humanity to triumph over gravity and stone. It constitutes a "little world," an autonomous zone where one may find all kinds of pleasures, chief among them food. Its beauty arises from the fact of its genesis: its production through calculation. It is an engineering—not an architectural—triumph. It is able to withstand winds up to 150 mph. It is, like Paris, a symbol of creative audacity. A symbol of ascension, of the euphoria of the ascensional imagination. The horizontal is devoured by the strength and exhilarating sweep of vertical lines. The Tower is a symbol of lightness. It loses itself in the sky.

These are all qualities that relate to the Space Needle. Except for one: The Space Needle is not abstract. There is a flying saucer on top. The Eiffel Tower leaps into the sky. It is graceful, balletic. The Space Needle pokes the sky. It is farcical, puckish. The engineering that underlies the Needle is no less magnificent than that of the Eiffel Tower (the Needle is capable of withstanding winds over 200 mph and earthquakes up to 9.1 magnitude; a 6.8 quake in 1965 jolted the Needle enough to make water slosh out of the toilets), but the Needle's engineering is hidden, as if out of modesty, in an object of ridicule. Barthes emphasizes the structural semiotics of the Tower. But the Needle resists philosophizing, evades it by mimicry. Rather than soar blithely into abstraction, the Needle caters to literal tastes. Edward Carlson, when he was president of Western International Hotels, penciled the shape that became the Space Needle on a coffee-house napkin. The Needle began as a doodle and will forever look like one. â–