Millau viaduct – a wonder?

Peaks

The second potential world wonder candidate we visited on our trip after Carcassonne was Millau viaduct, and in this post I fulfil Niall’s request to share my thoughts on this second candidate too.  For background, here are Niall’s own preview and review.

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. Millau itself is a town well worth writing about, and I’ll do so in my next post.

Wonder hunter and wonderI 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.

In fact, while we drove under, I made a video. It’s a bit rubbish but I hope it conveys something of an impression of the bridge. Here you go.

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.

Backdrop

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.

Under the bridge

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.

Driving over

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. Have a look at my photos of it, though, and decide for yourself.

I’m not surprised Niall rates it highly in his chart, though I would certainly not have put it in third place had it been down to me. Which, thankfully for Niall, it isn’t.

4 thoughts on “Millau viaduct – a wonder?

  1. Interesting alternative point of view, Simon.

    Tower, Forth, and Golden Gate – all indisputably older, more historic, more famous, more iconic. The Millau Viaduct is only eight years old, and so simply hasn’t had the time to realise these. The visitor centres are actually testament to its immediate popularity – built after its completion upon an awareness that they’d not only created a bridge, but a tourist attraction.

    Nonetheless, the Millau Viaduct doesn’t have much a story, or its story is pretty much wrapped up in technical description, and is a little boring. Hell, even the very bottom of my list, the Three Gorges Dam, has a better story.

    For me, the Millau Viaduct scores pretty much all its points on the sheer spectacle it is. And for two days, I just thought – wow. Distilled into its very essence, the incredible size yet delicate beauty just became “wow”. And sometimes that’s enough to be a Wonder. Naturally, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, especially with very modern designs that divide tastes sometimes.

    But… like the Kessock Bridge? I like the Kessock Bridge, but its like comparing Hadrian’s Wall with the Great Wall: fundamentally similar, but oh so different.

  2. It’s perfectly reasonable to say that the Kessock and Millau bridges are the basic same idea. They are major transport links across otherwise inefficiently-navigated areas, built on the basic principle of columns and beams. In the same way that Hadrian and Mr Great both built their walls for mass defensive purposes. Yes they are on different scales but they boil down to a lot of the same principles.

    I think the core of my critique of your high accolade for Millau comes down to the fact that it, as you admit above, “scores pretty much all its points on the sheer spectacle it is”. And that, surely, is not good enough – because it should be scoring points across all, or at least most, of your six categories. To hammer home with an impressive score (if not the most impressive score) in one category is not good enough if you score low on the other five.

    As I say, I’d have rated it high, very high even – just not as high as number 3.

  3. It’s not like a formal grading system, where each of my criteria is rated out ten, then added up. My criteria are simply aspects that often apply to Wonders, a helpful way to think about the different facets that impress. Not all are essential.

    In the end it’s all about the spectacle, the wow. Many things are iconic, have amazing stories, and epic histories, but are not at impressive as a spectacle. Naturally, something that is 4000 years old is inherently incredible, but it is perfectly good enough to be one year old and without much of a back story if something looks absolutely fantastic.

  4. Simon, I do wonder sometimes if you just like to be delibrately different and have contrasting views inorder to have a good debate! It must be the political animal in you.

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