Gustave Eiffel is a name you might be familiar with. Perhaps not with the person, but with his most famous creation, a certain tower in Paris. He also had a large hand in the construction of the Statue of Liberty, but primarily was a builder of bridges, and was behind countless in France, Europe, and as far afield as Peru and the Philippines. Eiffel ran a construction company, and this company far outlived his death in 1923, and in the natural evolution of companies it grew and also merged with others, becoming a group called Eiffage in 1992. This group has continued Eiffel's legacy of iconic constructions, and was behind the French side of the Channel Tunnel as well as the Louvre Pyramid, not to mention a huge number of other projects, roads, and railways. But they haven't forgotten how to build a bridge, and in 2004 they completed what may be one of the very best of them - the Millau Viaduct.
Spanning the Tarn valley and river in the south of France, the statistics alone for the Millau Viaduct impress. It's almost two-and-a-half kilometres long, and at a total top-to-bottom height of 343 metres is just 38 metres shy of the Empire State Building. In fact, in terms of actual structural height, that makes it the tallest bridge in the world. It cost €400 million, and already we can see that the Millau Viaduct is big, with big numbers associated. But big numbers, breaking records, and sheer bulk is not what the Millau Viaduct is about. No, not at all.
Because the purpose of the Millau Viaduct is not about imposing its will and dominating its surrounds: it's the very opposite. The Millau Viaduct is about grace and discretion. In spirit, it evokes the Eiffel Tower; indeed, you could almost say that the shadow of the Eiffel Tower hangs over the Millau Viaduct, but as it's 21 metres taller than the Eiffel Tower, this would have to be the other way around. The Eiffel Tower is used often in comparisons with the Millau Viaduct, usually in terms of size, but it runs deeper than that. The Millau Viaduct is a direct descendant of the Eiffel Tower, not just in its creator, but in its very style and effect. For like the Eiffel Tower, the Millau Viaduct is big but graceful, modern but timeless: a striking fusion of minimalism and immensity. It is, quite simply, beautiful.
And for this, we can thank, not a Frenchman, but a Brit. One going by the name of Baron Foster of Thames Bank - or just Norman to his friends. It would be fair to describe Norman Foster as one of the world's leading architects, behind such modern works as the Gherkin, Wembley Stadium, and the British Museum's Great Court, all in London, the Hearst Building in New York, and Berlin's Reichstag dome, as well as many, many others. His style is decidedly modern, all glass and steel and curves, and while this is not a style I'm readily attracted to, when he gets it right he really gets it right. He took an initial design by the French engineer, Michel Virlogeux, and put it on a rigorous supermodel diet. Virlogeux is a specialist in cable-stayed bridges - that is, bridges that have their main deck supported by cables from one or more towers, looking visually similar to suspension bridges but technically very different as to how the bridge weight is supported - and came up with the first draft of the Millau Viaduct way back in 1991. At that time there seemed no great hurry to get anything built, and the design was handed over to Foster who by 1996 had thoroughly refined it, with the intention of making it as "delicate as a butterfly" and seem like a natural part of the scenery. His version was a seriously slimmed down version, turning it into a construction of elegance. Bridges are usually associated with engineers, but the Millau Viaduct has architecture at its heart. By 2001, construction had begun.
No doubt, there were more than a few nerves. Not to doubt Foster's brilliance, but his recently constructed Millennium Bridge in London had encountered a bit of a hitch, in the form of resonant frequency. Simply put, the bridge began to sway a little from the combination of large numbers of footsteps, and this swaying motion caused people to step in time, creating a positive feedback loop that led to a significant and visible sway that had people complaining of "seasickness". This had not been an anticipated effect, and the bridge was closed down for six months, getting a £5 million refit to stabilise it. There was never any danger though, just discomfort, but for engineers beginning work on the Millau Viaduct it must have brought to mind the 1940 Tacoma Narrows Bridge which experienced resonant frequency in a far more dramatic and catastrophic form.
It was built in July 1940 and collapsed, with considerable inevitability, in November of the same year. There were no human casualties, but a dog called Tubby lost his life. His body, Wikipedia drily notes, was never recovered. He does however have a trivia page where you can learn that he was a black cocker spaniel, fell around 200 feet, only had three legs, and was paralysed. Poor Tubby had no chance.
Fortunately, despite the Millennium Bridge mishap, engineering know-how has come on quite a way since 1940, and the Millau Viaduct was constructed with greater confidence in its stability. Thus, as of 2012, there are no recorded canine deaths associated. It took just three years to construct, being opened to the public a month ahead of schedule on 17th December 2004, and coming in at almost half the initial budget. That's not to say it was an easy project. Height-wise, it was like building a series of Eiffel Towers and then building a four-lane highway running between them, and it doesn't take a structural engineer to realise this isn't easy. After the series of piers (i.e. the supporting pillars) were built, the main road deck was literally dragged into place using hydraulic jacks. The deck was constructed in advance, in two sections to the north and south of the bridge, and slowly pushed across the piers and the valley, until meeting in the middle. As something of this scale had never been attempted before, there was no guarantee the two sides would meet up neatly, leading to a potential headache on a grand scale, but in the end they were only 1 centimetre off. This superb efficiency and speed, in my opinion, can be put down to the clever funding system of the Millau Viaduct. Rather than being just a standard contract, whereby the main contractor - in this case, Eiffage - estimates a cost, only for this to later spiral out of control, Eiffage were instead responsible for the funding themselves. There can be no greater incentive for quick and efficient job if you're paying for it yourself. Eiffage's payment comes from the years ahead of tolls, at around €7 a car, which Eiffage themselves will collect until 2080, or 2044 if particularly profitable, when the government will take over. As in the first five years around 23 million cars used it, taking in something like €150 million, it's fair to say that Eiffage have found themselves a decent little earner.
These huge numbers - yet more associated with the Millau Viaduct - tell the story of why the bridge was built, and hint at the impact it has had. Because although I'll be visiting it just to look at it, it wasn't built for sightseeing. It was built to relieve the massive congestion that 50,000 cars a day would bring to the Tarn valley town of Millau during the height of summer, seeing three hour and 18 mile tailbacks. So, in terms of function, the Millau Viaduct has been wholly successful, eliminating these summer traffic problems. This success caused some concern with the residents of Millau, who worried that their town would be bypassed - but this where the Millau Viaduct has been doubly successful. Its celebrated form has become a tourist attraction in its own right, drawing in visitors to Millau in greater numbers than before. It has put Millau on the map for the right reasons; instead of just being somewhere en route from A to B, it has become the B.
It's fair to say I'm looking forward to the Millau Viaduct rather a lot, and have fairly high expectations for it. It is big but elegant, takes a very attractive photograph, and seems to have garnered universal praise. The Reader's Digest of last year rated it as one of the Wonders of the 21st Century, and so I eagerly await seeing how it rates for me.
I'll be visiting the Millau Viaduct very soon - the 16th and 17th July, next week - and will give a full account of it and my impressions then.