Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Varwell Corner: The Millau Viaduct

In July, with a group of us, Simon fully visited two Wonders with me, Carcassonne and the Millau Viaduct. His views on Carcassonne were seen previously [link]; in today's Varwell Corner, we see his views on the Millau Viaduct, both from his blog and in a short interview.


From Lost Horizons

In a few punchy sentences, though, Millau viaduct can be introduced as the tallest bridge in the world, and as a wonder of modern engineering. It was designed by Sir Norman Foster and spans the valley and river of Tarn, near the town of Millau in southern France.

I have to confess I’d never heard of the Millau viaduct until Niall included it in his wonder hunt, although it is well-known in France and something of a modern national icon.  Niall was instantly taken by the prospect of it, and so were most of the rest of our travel gang.

I, however, was a little more cautious.

I am always downbeat about hyped-up places, and from what I could see, the viaduct didn’t look all that spectacular. Certainly it was doing a spectacular job and was world beating in its vital statistics, but the simple idea of columns looked simple and bold without necessarily being beautiful or awe-inspiring.

It was with relatively low expectations, then, that I approached Millau viaduct, and on the whole I have to report that the bridge didn’t entirely overturn my impression.  That’s not to say it is without merit, and here are the main things it has going for it.

Firstly, it’s big. Impressively so. It’s taller than the Eiffel Tower at its largest height from the valley floor, and dominates the surrounding area.  Driving both under and across it is quite an experience, because you are so captivated by the sheer scale of the bridge.

Secondly, the viaduct has changed the town of Millau considerably. It was built to create a bypass for the town, and as I said above I’ll blog a little more about Millau itself and the difference the bridge made to it in my next post. [As seen here]

Thirdly, it’s well-celebrated. The French really know how to make the best of the bridge, and they’re certainly not short of pride on it. There is a visitor centre, with a very interesting guided tour of key facets of the construction.

For instance, the foot of the biggest columns are the size of a tennis court. The bridge was used with huge cranes that were equipped with kitchens and toilets, so high above ground were the cranes’ cabins. Also, most intriguingly, because nothing like this had been built before, some of the machinery required naturally didn’t exist and had to be conceived and invented itself first.

The delightful fuss and justifiable pride about the viaduct draw damning comparisons in my mind with the Forth Bridge. Arguably a more iconic and famous bridge (and certainly more historic), the famous red Forth Bridge was the Millau viaduct of its day, pushing contemporary engineering and technology to its limits and creating something that has a true wow factor and can be seen for miles around.

But if you visit the Forth Bridge, you’ll struggle to find much song and dance about it, and certainly no visitor centre. When I went to both ends of the bridge as part of my travels for The Next Stop, I found nothing more than a couple of mildly interesting interpretation panels.

Yet the story of the Forth Bridge, the centuries of dangerous crossings prior to its construction, and the Victorian engineering brilliance that created it, is fascinating and intertwined with Scotland’s wider history. For something so world famous, arguably more so than the Millau viaduct, there is a very poor attitude to showing it off – and that’s something symptomatic of a lot of our tourist industry.

In comparison, Millau viaduct really struts its stuff, and shows other major constructs how it should be done. Take note, Scotland.

But telling a story well doesn’t necessarily mean that the story itself is good, and no matter how good the visitor centre is, it doesn’t stop the attraction being an ever so slight disappointment.

I struggle to put my fingers on this, but there’s something just a little plain and ordinary about the design of the bridge.  Yes, it’s simple, almost classic in its feel.  Yes, it is a bold, eye-catching and light-catching beam of silver that shoots across the valley.

But the use of tall columns and supporting cables is nothing hugely original, and the design at its most basic level is not a million miles away from Inverness’s own Kessock Bridge, the Forth Bridge’s car-carrying neighbour, or a great many other structures.

It’s not unattractive, and it’s certainly a sharp, bold design, but is it beautiful? Obviously that’s a totally subjective point, but in my view, no, not particularly.

For something that was clearly going to be a world-class structure, I am surprised they didn’t try to do more with the design: maybe something that created more of a smooth arc, perhaps something that somehow got the two sides of the valley to “speak” to each other in a way that blended into the scenery as well as enhanced it. Thankfully I’m not an engineer or designer, so I have absolutely no obligation to come up with a better idea. I have the lazy luxury of being able to sit back and merely comment.

That’s not to say I was unimpressed with Millau viaduct, nor would I attach any negative adjectives to it, and it was certainly a more attractive design than the other options they considered, which you can see in the viaduct museum.  Is it a spectacular piece of engineering? Absolutely. Is it one of the best bridges in the world?  Quite possibly, though I’d guess that the likes of London’s Tower Bridge, the Forth Bridge and the San Francisco Golden Gate Bridge are probably more iconic, more famous and certainly more historic, even if they are smaller.  Undoubtedly Millau viaduct is a marvel from the technical point of view, but size and technical brilliance alone and a clean, crisp appearance do not make a wonder.

It’s spectacular, for sure.  But is it world-beating? Not quite, in my book,


Had you heard of Millau Viaduct before the holiday?

No, at least not that I remember.

What were your expectations?

Fair to middling.  Its world-beating vital statistics and association with Foster are eye-catching and set a high bar, but the look and design of it struck me from the pictures as a wee tad unexciting.

What was your first impression?

Wow.  As we approached it first in the car, it was clearly big, bold, imposing and dominated the surroundings.  Against such lush, soft, green countryside and the bright blue sky, its striking structure really stood out.

What did you like most about  Millau Viaduct?

Two things.  Firstly, the back story of its creation - I love the idea that something is so big and so original that even most of the equipment and tools had to be conceived and designed first because of course nothing like this had been built before.  The viaduct's museum and tour was a great chance to find out more about the story, and also a great example of how to take celebrate something as functional as a bridge.  As I explained in my own blog post on the viaduct, it puts the likes of the Forth Bridge (arguably just as iconic and, in its day just as much a milestone for contemporary engineering) to shame because nothing is done for the visitor to truly draw them into the story and wonder of the structure.  Millau is different, though: it is portrayed not just as a marvel of engineering, but a marvel in general.

The second thing is the job it does in liberating Millau.  I love how the town, rather than being bypassed and ignored, has actually been freed of congestion and given the chance to breathe, and of course be a base for visiting the bridge itself.  It's a delightfully pretty and engaging town with an attractive riverside setting, and it's easy to imagine how much less pleasant it would have been with all the traffic.

What didn't you like about Millau Viaduct?

The only criticism I can make is that the design feels like an ever so slightly missed opportunity on the visual front.  The basic idea of columns and cables not just as the core of the engineering but as the mainstay of the aesthetic is common in bridges around the world.  So given this was going to be the highest bridge in the world I wonder why they didn't go for something that was visually just a little different.  If you look at Scotland's Forth Road or Kessock Bridges, for instance, while Millau is on a totally different scale it is pretty much the same basic idea.  It's a lovely bridge to look at, but its visual appearance does not have the total wow factor quite to the same extent that its scale and the story of its construction do.  Ask most people to think of the world's most iconic bridges, and I daresay Millau will not feature highly compared to the likes of the Forth Bridge, the Golden Gate Bridge, London Bridge and so on.  This is, I think, because as a look, an icon, an image, a visual spectacle, it just lacks a certain je ne sais quoi.

Would you regard Millau Viaduct as a World Wonder?

Yes, but certainly not top 7.  Carcassonne would be higher up the table, and I'd put Millau as Aberdeen FC - a big beast but not quite achieving what it truly could.

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