Rail and Architecture II: Contemporary Marvels Along European Tracks

A marvel is something extraordinary and impressive. Whether it’s a bridge spanning a vast river, a rocket that sends humans to the moon or an architectural wonder that draws people in.

Railway stations are modern engineering marvels. Designed as palaces of civic pride, they shape people’s first impression of cities and define communities.

1. The Eiffel Tower

Paris’ most recognizable landmark, the Eiffel Tower is an architectural marvel that continues to inspire artists, engineers, and dreamers. The wrought iron structure—which features four self-buttressing metal legs that rise in a pylon shape—was first constructed for the 1889 World Fair to celebrate the centenary of the French Revolution. Today, the iconic tower is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world.

The Tower was designed as the centerpiece of the Exposition Universelle, or World’s Fair, organized to commemorate the centenary of the French Revolution and to showcase France’s industrial prowess on a global stage. The organizers of the fair launched an open competition to design a spectacular centerpiece for the event, inviting 107 proposals from architects and engineers. Out of these, the team led by engineer Gustave Eiffel was chosen. Engineers Maurice Koechlin and Emile Nouguier and architect Stephen Sauvestre also contributed to the final design.

The team chose a concept of a “metal pylon,” with lattice girders standing apart at the base but joined together at regular intervals. This innovative idea was a revolutionary leap forward in structural engineering, and it was the key factor that set the Eiffel Tower apart from its competitors.

When the Eiffel Tower opened, it was the tallest structure in the world. It would not be surpassed until the construction of the Chrysler Building in New York in 1930.

Despite its controversial beginnings, the tower became beloved by many for its stunning views and remarkable engineering achievements. The Tower was also used for telecommunications, with radio and television signals being transmitted from its top floors throughout the world. It also served as a landmark for many daredevils, including Bird Man (Pierre Labric) who jumped off the first level of the Eiffel Tower in 1912, and mountain climbers Guido Magnone and Rene Desmaison, who conquered its summit in 1964.

2. The Berlin Wall

The Berlin Wall stood for 28 years as a symbol of division and repression, but also of the yearning for freedom. Today, Germans still speak of a Mauer in den Kopfen, or a “wall in people’s heads,” even though reunification happened nearly 30 years ago.

The story of the Wall began in the aftermath of World War II, when Allied forces—the US, France, and Britain—occupied Germany. At the Yalta and Potsdam peace conferences, it was decided that Germany’s territory would be divided into four Allied occupation zones, including Berlin, which was to be split into East and West.

Between 1949 and 1961, around three million citizens of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) escaped to the West through Berlin. These emigrants caused great anxiety for the Communist leadership, who were concerned that their planned economy could collapse under such a flow of workers and consumers.

On the night of August 13, 1961, as Berliners slept, the GDR government began sealing off entry points to the western sector of the city. First rolls of barbed wire were put up, followed by concrete walls topped with steel. In densely built-up areas, windows and doors were bricked up and guards manned watchtowers to prevent citizens from escaping through the streets.

Footage from the IWM’s film archive shows what life was like with the Wall between 1961 and 1989, when it finally came down after an unprecedented wave of protest. Clips feature important moments, such as the stand-off between the GDR and Soviet forces at Checkpoint Charlie, the speech given by Walter Ulbricht at a GDR press conference, and the huge demonstrations at Alexanderplatz. Watch these and more clips from the IWM’s collection of over 250 Berlin Wall videos.

3. The Statue of Liberty

The Statue of Liberty is one of the most recognizable symbols in the world. This colossal neoclassical sculpture, a gift from France for the centennial of American independence, stands at the entrance to New York Harbor. Inaugurated in 1886, the statue’s soaring presence greets immigrants entering the United States from around the globe.

The idea for the Statue of Liberty stemmed from the collaboration between slavery abolitionist Edouard Rene de Laboulaye and sculptor Frederic Auguste Bartholdi. The resulting statue, entitled Libertas or “Liberty Enlightening the World” depicts the Roman goddess of liberty, with her torch lighting the way to freedom and a tablet with July 4, 1776 written in Roman numerals at her feet. A broken shackle and chains are also at her feet, symbolizing the end of slavery.

Bartholdi faced challenges in designing the colossal copper structure, including finding an appropriate site on which to build such a monument. He chose Bedloe’s Island, now known as Liberty Island, to make the statue visible to all ships entering New York Harbor. He hired the engineer Alexandre Gustave Eiffel to design the metal framework.

After completing the skeletal structure in Paris, craftsmen and artisans reassembled the Statue in New York. Reconstruction proceeded with surprising speed thanks to a fearless construction crew, many of them recent immigrants. The reassembly was done without the use of scaffolding – all of the statue’s elements were hoisted up by steam driven cranes and derricks. To sculpt the statue’s skin, Eiffel employed the repousse technique developed by Eugene Viollet-le-Duc.

Have students explore the many symbols built in to the Statue of Liberty, such as the tablet and axe, broken chains, seven rays, and 25 windows. They may wish to consider the role each symbol plays in the statue’s message and its relevance today.

4. The Golden Gate Bridge

At 1.7 miles long and towering 746 feet above the water, the Golden Gate Bridge is a dazzling engineering feat. The iconic bridge connects San Francisco and Marin County in California and is known for its vibrant orange-red color, suspension design, and stunning views of the bay. It’s also a symbol of human ingenuity, and millions of people flock to see it every year.

The idea of a bridge over the narrow passage between San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean had been around for decades, but it didn’t gain much momentum until the early 20th century. At that time, the only way to get from San Francisco to Marin County was by ferry. Many experts doubted that it was possible to build a bridge over the treacherous strait, citing strong currents, fog, and wind as reasons why a structure wouldn’t work.

But Chicago-based engineer Joseph Baermann Strauss came up with a plan that made a bridge over the Golden Gate seem not only feasible, but affordable as well. By 1921, he submitted his preliminary sketches to O’Shaughnessy, and the bridge began to take shape.

During construction, workers faced difficult weather conditions as they worked to build the bridge, but they persevered. A total of 11 workers lost their lives while working on the project, and a safety net was strung underneath the bridge to help prevent more deaths.

The Golden Gate Bridge opened to the public in 1937, and today it’s one of the most recognizable landmarks in the world. It’s a symbol of American ingenuity, and it’s also an important part of the national highway system.

5. The Leaning Tower of Pisa

One of the most iconic landmarks in the world, the Leaning Tower of Pisa is a must-see for travelers. Although the structure is famous for its tilt, it is actually more balanced than one would expect, and engineers have been able to keep it stable over time.

The Tower was originally intended to be a free-standing bell tower, designed to complement the adjacent cathedral. But soon after construction began in 1173, the Tower’s famous stance started to take shape. This was largely due to the soft soil in which it was built, as it caused the foundations to shift and destabilize. Engineer Giovanni di Simone tried to rectify the issue by adding more floors to the structure. However, this only made the Tower lean more, as it shifted its weight towards the lower side.

Unfortunately, a series of earthquakes in the 1800s further exacerbated the leaning and almost resulted in its collapse. Fortunately, the Tower’s base was able to absorb some of the damage and the leaning has since stabilized.

Today, the Tower of Pisa is a popular attraction and draws millions of visitors each year to the Square of Miracles. The area is crowded and full of tourists taking pictures and posing with their hands outstretched like they are supporting the Tower’s weight. But don’t let the crowds detract from the Tower of Pisa – it is an amazing piece of engineering that will truly blow you away!

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