After one week in Paris, participating in talks, forums, events and spending time in a city whose residents have just undergone a collective trauma, I spent my last day in France sitting in a park at the foot of the Eiffel Tower, pondering the 20th century that was, and the 21st century to come. Built at the tail end of the 19th century, the Eiffel Tower is the most photographed object on earth. And it is no wonder. This monument is so compelling in person, there's an urge to convey that feeling and share it, but there is no way to capture its size, context, and relation to the city and space that surrounds it. It is the tallest structure in Paris, and while it is undoubtedly the city's icon, it stands apart entirely from the otherwise from the aesthetics of the built environment.
Its shape is at once masculine and feminine, industrial and artistic, utilitarian and frivolous, familiar and totally unique. A perfect symbol of the global culture that emerged in the 20th century, the tower is an act of hubris and tremendous will, and through form and function, communicates a yearning to grow, dominate, build, destroy old icons and aesthetics and rebuild humanity anew. A century obsessed with reinvention, fraught with folly, and characterized by the notion of linear time and progress, represents the process that brought us here, to everything we know, and everything we know we can and can't continue to do. It is quite easy to hate on the 20th century (world wars, atomic bomb, population explosion, ecological degradation) or valorize it at the same time (international travel, space travel, communication revolution, medical advancements). But with all that, it's also the century in which I was born and grew up, and it carries a legacy that will forever be mine to take responsibility for and engage with.
It is as though the Eiffel Tower foresaw the many wonders and tragedies of humanity's energies and ambitions as we entered and created a new epoch. I wondered, as we embark on this century, what symbol will represent it (and us) in the years, decades, and millennia to come. Will the symbol of the 21st Century disclose our urgent drive for transformation; our deeply varied senses of past, present, and future; our many different cultures, and our dominant ideologies. Has this century's icon already been built?
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