Friday, 27 July 2012

24. Wonder: The Millau Viaduct

(For the Millau Viaduct preview, please click here.)

Quick, get a €500 note and take a look at the reverse. What do you see? What, you don’t have one to hand? Well, here you go.

The seven different denominations of Euro note (€5, €10, €20, €50, €100, €200, and €500) each have a bridge depicted on the reverse. Each represents a different era of bridge architecture, going all the way back to the Roman times. They are, in fact, supposed to be generic, representing the style rather than any actual bridge, but some, like the €5 Pont du Gard, do little to hide their inspiration. The “Modern 20th Century Architecture” of the €500 likewise is pretty unmistakeably the Millau Viaduct (putting aside the small fact it was built in the 21st Century).

One of the signs of a Wonder is how it begins to be represented in the wider world. They appear on film and TV, on advertising, on stamps, or even – in the case of Angkor Wat – in a national flag. This requires a distinct form and ready identification. It usually takes a little longer for a modern structure to take root in the world consciousness, and the Millau Viaduct certainly isn’t globally recognised, but it’s on a Euro note and has appeared on a number of TV shows. The most notable of these is an episode of Top Gear, now one of the most watched TV shows in the world with viewing figures into the hundreds of millions (it also appeared, briefly, in a montage scene of “Mr Bean’s Holiday”, but let’s not hold that against it). The Millau Viaduct is well known in France, but will it ever manage to reach a greater level of awareness? Is it distinct enough, is it big enough, is it incredible enough to become an icon? Frankly, is it good enough to be known simply for being itself?

My answer: Yes. Oh yes.

It was another bright and hot July evening when the nine-strong group of us reached Millau - pronounced Mee-yo - after a long, though not at all unpleasant, day of driving. There was a degree of excitement mounting as we navigated the winding roads of the Tarn valley, in which the small town of Millau is nestled and across which its huge viaduct spans. A couple of years ago, when I added the Millau Viaduct to my list, I hadn’t expected great things. It looked interesting, granted, but perhaps too straightforward and modern to be truly special. But I’d not pondered much – it was on the list and left to sit and wait. Only in the last few months, when I returned to it and began to read about it and see more pictures, did my expectations begin to pick up. Its minimal, elegant design began to appeal, not to mention the sheer size of it. For the very casual observer, glancing at some photos, it might just look like a rather long, rather tall suspension bridge (it isn't, it’s a cable-stayed bridge, which is very different, but there is a passing visual similarity), but the more I saw the more I realised it was a little more than that. I began to get excited. This was backed up by the sentiments of the holiday group, notably Justin, who boldly predicted it would be in his own personal top Seven, and Lucy, a huge fan of the viaduct’s primary designer, Norman Foster. As we turned corner after corner, expecting on each turn to have the sudden “reveal”, excitement was reaching fever pitch. Each turn revealed just another corner ahead...

And then, there it was.

It was widely discussed, on the trip, what a funny thing expectation can be. The ideal situation is to have exactly zero expectations when visiting a Wonder - a slate wiped clean - but this is clearly impossible. I get excited about pretty much all Wonders, but I definitely arrive with higher expectations for some than others. Not being a robot, it’s impossible to remove that feeling, and thus high expectations come with the very high risk of disappointment – Angkor Wat being a prime example. This is why I visit everything more than once, to try and balance the feeling out a little. And so although the Millau Viaduct had been added to my candidate list without much hype, throughout the holiday the hype had grown and grown, and was reaching fever pitch as the car turned each corner waiting for it to come into view. Inside, I was hugely excited to be seeing it, but with alarm bells going off warning me that it would actually be disappointment round the corner.

But no, I’m happy to report that there was no disappointment, not around the corner, or at any point during my next two days stay in Millau. The Millau Viaduct is breathtaking. From that first inhalation of breath upon first sight, with it towering above, to the final exhale upon crossing it and seeing it disappear in the rear view mirror, it captivated. It soars gracefully above the Tarn Valley, like a missing link in the scene as it literally links northern France to the Mediterranean. Whether beneath, looking up at the deck hundreds of metres up, at one of the many viewing points watching it gently curve, or many miles away seeing the entire 2460 metre length from side on looking like seven spectral triangles placed side-by-side, it never failed to hold my gaze. I talk about Wow moments with Wonders – this Wow began at first sight and lasted a full two days.

In a roll call of names in the thank-you speech, two stand out, these being the structural engineer Michel Virlogeux, who came up with the original concept and supervised the construction, and the architect Norman Foster, who was responsible for design. But there are a few more, perhaps a few too many to begin listing here – that of the French motoring population. The Millau Viaduct does not exist, like many Wonders, through some whim or fancy; it wasn’t build to appease an angry god, or as a despot’s vanity project. The Millau Viaduct was built for function, to ease the growing level of traffic congestion insanity that was occurring every summer, when the population of France decided to head south to the Mediterranean. The south of France is very nice; less so when you’re stuck in a traffic jam for eight hours. The problem was that there was no easy way to solve this. The Tarn Valley was in the way, and it created rather a big gap to bridge. Also, the Tarn Valley is rather pretty and quite a few people didn’t want it spoilt by a big ugly bridge.

The two visitors centres – the “bottom” one, at the base of pier 4 (the middle “leg” of the Millau Viaduct’s seven) and the “top” one,  near the northern end of the viaduct – go into a lot more detail as to how this problem was resolved. It took many years of development, choosing an appropriate site, and of course choosing an appropriate design. As I say, function was the primary objective – a bridge was required to link motorways. The top visitor’s centre displayed the other proposals. Here’s what we could have had.

All of these would have worked: they would have bridged the gap, they would have reduced the traffic problems. The Millau Viaduct would have existed – and nobody would ever have heard of it. Just a bridge. And this is where the touch of the architect comes in. Bridge building is very much a science, and bridges are a product of engineering. The Millau Viaduct is no exception – it has a ton of science behind it. Norman Foster’s design took all of this into account, but gave it something extra, a look. He put it on a diet, streamlined it, gave it an elegance, he wanted it to be as “delicate as a butterfly”, sympathetic to its surroundings. Not just a bridge.A supermodel bridge.

The bottom visitor’s centre focuses mostly on the various construction challenges in building a 2.5 kilometre long bridge that is taller than the Eiffel Tower. The tour was conducted in French, though with an English audio tour option, and if you are fascinated by the specifics of structural engineering you’ll get a lot out of it. Most of the middle-age French tourists present, I suspect, were not big into their structural engineering; I know I’m not. The visitor’s centre and the tour underlie the fact that the viaduct is very new. It doesn’t have much history, save for its construction, and it doesn’t have much of a story behind it. The government awarded the contract to Eiffage, a massive construction conglomerate, who funded the entire project themselves in return for the proceeds of the toll for the next 70 years. Due to Eiffage being such a vast group, they had the expertise for every area of discipline with regards the construction, all except the actual stay-cables which support the deck from the pylons above, which were contracted out to specialists. They got all the top guys and paid them excellent salaries, which ensured the entire project was brilliantly executed, on time, under-budget. The construction of the Millau Viaduct is a masterclass on how to build a megastructure. But let’s not pretend it’s a story to rival the tragic romance of the Taj Mahal, or the dramas of gladiatorial combat in the Colosseum. The tour, let’s be honest, is a little boring. But it doesn’t matter, because it allows a great view.


Really, the view is all you need to be concerned about when visiting the Millau Viaduct. Terrific, it was built on time; great, it took a whole bunch of expertise; amazing, it fulfils its function perfectly; but oh my, wonderful, wow, does it look good.

The Millau Viaduct is 2460 metres long, up to 343 metres high, but just 32 metres wide. What this tells you is that depending on where you stand, it looks very different.

Stand from a distance and see the entire length of the viaduct, a slender exercise of geometry, with its single horizontal span crossed seven times by the vertical pylons and piers, and the cables creating seven identical triangles.

Justin Green
View from below, and feel tiny as it looms above, the giant piers towering, the deck creating a huge arcing shadow.

Approach to cross, and the bridge suddenly seems razor thin, the cables narrow to a single line and become almost like the spine of a dinosaur. The gentle curve of the viaduct allows a view from start to finish – a very deliberate touch by Foster so that drivers could always see the end point.

Or get in a crazy little gyrocopter and hover above, and appreciate the absolute beauty of the Millau Viaduct in its natural, stunning setting.

This last picture was taken by French Claire, but I was fortunate enough myself to enjoy such a view just an hour earlier. About a half hour drive from Millau is a small airfield, which offers a 30-minute ride in a gyrocopter for €85, flying over the Tarn Valley and the Millau Viaduct. Despite not being awfully keen on flying, how could I refuse? The pilot was the very laid back Stefan, who made it look easy as he soared over the valley, with the occasional plunge and mad high speed charge across the countryside. Terrifyingly exciting. I was lucky – it was a superbly clear day, and the views were perfect. A photo can only ever go so far as to capturing a moment, and you just have to imagine the picture above blown up to the size of the whole world to get an idea of how incredible it all looked. The scenery, yes, is fabulous, and the Millau Viaduct adds that extra special something. Like the Great Wall of China clinging to the ridges of mountains, it augments its surroundings. It makes the natural world look better.

I am seriously considering investing in a gyrocopter to visit all future Wonders.

However, despite this very privileged experience, I have to say my highlight of visiting the Millau Viaduct is a far more conventional one, and the one it was designed for: crossing by car. Not by design but by ever-changing circumstance, this ended up being our very final view of the viaduct, crossing it as we left Millau to travel on to Nimes. As a goodbye to the Wonder we had spent two days in total admiration for there could not have been a more perfect way. Two cars, nine of us in total, approached the tolls, paid our €8.whatever, and...

If you ever have the opportunity to cross the Millau Viaduct, I urge you to do it this way. Approach from the north, and just as you pass the tolls, put on the song “Royksopp Forever” by Norwegian electronic duo Royksopp, and drive a little below the speed limit. The song builds and swells into a triumphant crescendo, and synchronises with the crossing. It was like being part of an epic film finale, and felt impossibly grand. Did Foster and Royksopp plan this together? It is majestic.


As a tourist experience, the Millau Viaduct is all about the viewing. It is a testament to the Millau Viaduct that as soon as it was out of sight I wanted to see it again. Two days weren’t enough. From below, from above, side on, head on, I saw it from numerous angles, and it looked great from each. But there are a lot of viewpoints, and I want to see it from every one. How can something so simple be so transfixing? Well, the simplicity is deceptive. This bridge is genius, and the work of a genius, and its subtle minimalism, huge but delicate, is its beauty. It is a pleasure to look at it. Unfortunately, having never been designed with the tourist in mind, the bridge doesn’t allow for pedestrians (there is a maintenance walkway, but that’s not open to the public). This means the great pleasure of walking along the viaduct, enjoying both the view of the valley and the pylons and cables above, is not possible. What a great shame. Driving across the Millau Viaduct was a tremendous experience, but only lasted a few minutes. A two-hour walk would be sensational.

As a spectacle, however, the Millau Viaduct is nigh on faultless. I guess the worst I could say about it is that for people who really hate modern architecture, it might not be their thing. It’s certainly not an in-your-face display of modernity, but it is made from concrete and steel and has a certain geometrically clean aesthetic. The concrete element is a little more visible when viewing from below; otherwise, the materials used don’t seem too relevant. Ultimately, the impact of any Wonder is not in what it’s made from, or how it was made, or even who made it: it is simply how it looks and the effect it has. And wow, the Millau Viaduct blew me away.

Some criteria then.

Size: 2.5 kilometres long, 343 metres tall, it’s a big one. But like a graceful swan, it’s delicate, and never dominates its surroundings.
Engineering: Impressive. This is a state-of-the-art bridge, that pushed the boundaries of what was then possible. A superb example of a well-planned, professional operation.  
Artistry: Designed by Sir Norman Foster, regarded by many as the world’s foremost architect, the Millau Viaduct is an exercise in minimalism, a slender creation of subtle touches, that enhances its environment, and is captivating to the eye.
Age/Gravitas: Completed in 2004, this is still a new kid on the block. It was built with a guarantee to last 120 years. The Millau Viaduct still seems modern, and so time will tell if it can survive and acquire a timeless property.
Fame/Iconicity: Well known in France, less so everywhere else. But growing.
Context: Absolutely, magnificently placed spanning the Tarn Valley, the Millau Viaduct is foremost a masterpiece of sympathetic architecture, augmenting the landscape around it.  
Back Story: Built to ease traffic congestion, on time, efficiently, the Millau Viaduct is too new and well-behaved to have gained much in the way myths quite yet.
Originality: By obvious necessity, it takes the form of a bridge, but it’s the subtle touches – the curve, the simplicity, the delicate qualities – that mark it as an original.
Wow Moment: From start to finish, all Wow.

At the lower tourist centre, a large wall display compares the Millau Viaduct’s size against a number of other well known global landmarks. Here it is, taken from a leaflet (click to get it at full size).

There we have the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the Parthenon, Big Ben, the Statue of Liberty, the Great Pyramid, the Eiffel Tower, and Mont Saint-Michel, all huddling beneath it, like puppies sheltering below mother dog. The Eiffel Tower especially is very frequently used as a comparison, ostensibly due to them being the tallest structures in France, but as I suggested in my preview, also because of a kind of spiritual kinship between the two. And in my entry here, I have used a number of very well regarded World Wonders to evoke comparisons. This is no coincidence. The best Wonders have a distinctiveness and hold a fascination: you can’t tear your eyes away from them. Like the Taj Mahal, like the Great Wall of China, I stared at the Millau Viaduct, in that purest sense of wonder. How it could it be, I thought, it’s just a bridge. But the Millau Viaduct is a bridge only in the same way that the Taj Mahal is a square chunk of marble with a dome, or the Great Wall is just a really long wall. It’s more than that, much more. It has that unlisted criteria of je ne sais quoi that gives the magic to a Wonder.

The Millau Viaduct, you will have gathered, impressed me immensely. I was very lucky: I saw the Millau Viaduct at its very best, over a couple of stunningly clear, blue sky days, and from numerous angles, including from above in a gyrocopter. You can do no more than see a Wonder at its prime. It entirely surpassed my initial expectations when I first put it on my candidate list, and ably met with the very high expectations that had built in the days and weeks just before first viewing. It is a magnificent work. And in the end, while I don’t think anything will ever compare to the Taj Mahal or the Great Wall of China, the Millau Viaduct is certainly better than its nearest modern rival, the Sydney Opera House, and moving up the list to Angkor Wat I have little difficultly proclaiming (no doubt to the horror of some) that, yes, it’s better than that too.  So there we have it, the Millau Viaduct is the new no. 3 on my list, with a strong chance at eventually being one of the top Seven.

The Seven Wonders of the World So Far
1. Taj Mahal
2. Great Wall of China
3. Millau Viaduct
4. Angkor Wat
5. Sydney Opera House
6. Borobudur
7. Carcassonne

Kailash Temple in Ellora
Petronas Towers

Notable Landmarks (or National Wonders)
The Golden Temple
Forbidden City
Temple of the Emerald Buddha
Shwedagon Pagoda
Bodhi Tataung Standing Buddha
Banaue Rice Terraces

Interesting Places
Ananda Temple in Bagan
Marina Bay Sands
Terracotta Army
Leshan Giant Buddha

Agra Fort
Ayutthaya Historic Park
Lotus Temple
Three Gorges Dam

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