This Engineer Wanted You to Drive Into the Sky Above Paris
For the 1937 World’s Fair in Paris, engineer Eugène Freyssinet wanted to build a huge cone-like structure, its most distinctive feature a road that wound tightly around its core.
There is a special honor reserved for thoroughfares that have a tendency to turn their travelers green. The Road to Hana in Hawaii, The Road of Death in Bolivia, and 24-Zig Road in China are just a few of of the highways notorious for their twists and turns that add more than a little danger—not to mention queasiness—to a good-old road trip.
But these twisters have nothing on a road-to-the-sky that could have been.
In honor of the 1937 World’s Fair in Paris, esteemed French engineer Eugène Freyssinet proposed building a skinny cone-like structure that would be the tallest building in the world. He called it the Phare du Monde, the Lighthouse of the World, and it’s most distinctive feature was to be a road that wound tightly around its core.
Since the first World’s Fair in London in 1851, the countries of the world have been gathering every so often (currently every five years) to exchange ideas and engage in a little national bragging.
Historically, these gatherings have also been venues in which the host country can show off feats of architecture and engineering that often become a permanent part of their skylines.
The Eiffel Tower was originally built as a centerpiece for the 1889 expo. The Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago is housed in the Palace of Fine Arts built for the 1893 fair. The Křižíkova Fountain in Prague and Magic Fountain of Montjuïc in Barcelona joined the list of must-see city sights after their hometown hosting duties in 1891 and 1929, respectively.
The Space Needle was built for the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair, among other landmarks that originated from international expos.
By the time preparations for the 1937 World's Fair rolled around, Freyssinet had not only built a bevy of admirable and functional structures—he was known for his bridges as well as a smattering of airport hangers, cargo ships, and more—he had also worked to revolutionize the construction industry with his achievements in improving prestressed concrete, a technique that allows the material to hold even more weight.
Spanish engineer Leonardo Troyano once said that Freyssinet’s “capacity for creation, invention and research and his non-conformity with existing ideas and doctrines made him one of the most notable engineers in the history of engineering.” Most of his inventions were revolutionary, yes, but also highly practical.
Not so the Phare du Monde.
The 1937 World’s Fair was ramping up to be one filled with excitement. Both the German Third Reich and their arch enemy the Soviet Union had RSVP’d “yes” to the event, and the planners in all their wisdom decided to locate the antagonistic countries’ pavilions directly across from one another.
Photos from the fair show the two buildings facing off: the tall, slender German pavilion towered on the left with the Nazi eagle and swastika crowing the top; on the right, the squat and stout Russian pavilion held it’s ground topped by a massive sculpture of a man and woman looming over the Champs du Mars holding a hammer and sickle.
The Eiffel Tower stands in the middle as if playing referee.
The theme of the fair that year was “Art and Technology in Modern Life.” While the Nazis and Soviets were facing off over who could exhibit the more domineering presence, Freyssinet wanted to create a structure that would pay homage to one of the most important inventions in modern life at the time: the car.
“By 1939 the automobile had become the primary force in determining the appearance of the ordinary landscape of cities,” Edward Relph wrote in The Modern Urban Landscape. “All that remained to be constructed was a great symbol to the foremost machine of what Reyner Banham has called the First Machine Age…Just such a symbol was conceived by the reputable French engineer Eugene Freysinnet for the 1937 World’s Fair in Paris.”
His idea was to create a structure that would be 2,300 feet tall, with a wider base that tapered to a point at the top. From the ground up to 1,640 feet, a ramp would wind around and around and around, allowing cars to drive from the base of the building nearly to the top.
At the end of the road, as it were, there would be a parking garage that could hold somewhere between 400 and 500 cars (the record is inconclusive on the exact number), followed by a restaurant that could seat 2,000 people, then a hotel, then a large beacon (or lighthouse), and finally a meteorological observation post. The whole thing would be built primarily of—you guessed it—concrete.
It was an astonishing idea—a building whose light could be seen from 160 miles away and whose verticality would dwarf the Empire State Building (at 1,250 feet), and the Eiffel Tower (at just over 1,000 feet).
But the craziest part of all would be allowing the same drivers who careen around the world’s roads to drive the narrow 3.5 miles in a spiral to the top…with only a thin railing on the outside to prevent them from falling nearly half-a-mile to their deaths and barely enough space for the two-way traffic to share the road. The safety of the road aside, it was also sure to be dizziness-inducing affair.
Freyssinet didn’t throw caution to the strong winds. He had already decided that it was too dangerous to allow people to control their own cars on the descent.
For that part of the trip, he imagined a monorail would guide the speed of the cars safely from the garage down to the ground, while their drivers continued to steer. But those same drivers were free to race to the top of the building entirely on their own.
“To drive up and down would surely have been a symbolic act, a twentieth-century version of walking a spiral maze in the Middle Ages, except of course that instead of spiritual enlightenment one would have probably received a bumper sticker saying ‘This car climbed La Phare du Monde,’” Relph wrote.
The largest—and undoubtedly the most dangerous—lighthouse in the world was never built. While it’s difficult to determine how seriously the idea was considered, Popular Mechanics at the time wrote about it as if it was already in the works as “one of the features planned for the Paris Exposition,” and advertisements for the scheme were published in the newspapers.
Ultimately, the exhibition organizers may have declined due to financial concerns. Freyssinet estimated that the entire project would set the country back only $2.5 million (roughly $42 million in today’s currency and around the same price as the Eiffel Tower), but the site CityMetric reports that authorities at the time thought the price tag was realistically more like $25 million.
With a sigh of regret—or relief—La Phare du Monde was interred in the pantheon of imaginative architectural wonders that were never realized. The over 31 million people who attended the 1937 Paris World’s Fair were denied the chance to risk their lives driving into the sky.
But that doesn’t mean it has to stay there. Nearly a century later, Paris has recently submitted a bid to host the 2025 World Expo. So, it might not be too late for the concrete king’s grand plans after all.