Bridges are often considered to belong to the realm of the engineer rather than that of the architect. But the architecture of infrastructure has a powerful impact on the environment and the Millau Viaduct, designed in close collaboration with structural engineers, illustrates how the architect can play an integral role in the design of bridges. It follows the Millennium Bridge over the River Thames in expressing a fascination with the relationship between function, technology and aesthetics in a graceful structural form.
Located in southern France, the bridge completes a hitherto missing link in the A75 autoroute from Clermont-Ferrand to Béziers across the Massif Central. The A75 now provides a direct, high-speed route from Paris to the Mediterranean coast and on to Barcelona
The bridge crosses the River Tarn, which runs through a spectacular gorge between two high plateaux. Interestingly, alternative readings of the topography suggested two possible structural approaches: to celebrate the act of crossing the river; or to articulate the challenge of spanning the 2.46 kilometres from one plateau to the other in the most economical and elegant manner. Although historically the river was the geological generator of the landscape, it is very narrow at this point, and so it was the second reading that suggested the most appropriate structural solution.
A cable-stayed, masted structure, the bridge is delicate, transparent, and has the optimum span between columns. Its construction broke several records: it has the highest pylons in the world, the highest road bridge deck in Europe, and it superceded the Eiffel Tower as the tallest structure in France.
Each of its sections spans 342 metres and its piers range in height from 75 metres to 245 metres, with the masts rising a further 87 metres above the road deck. To accommodate the expansion and contraction of the concrete deck, each column splits into two thinner, more flexible columns below the roadway, forming an A-frame above deck level. The tapered form of the columns both expresses their structural loads and minimises their profile in elevation. Not only does this give the bridge a dramatic silhouette, but crucially, it also makes the minimum intervention in the landscape.
“If new bridges have landmark roles (and the astonishing Millau Viaduct in France has become a 'vaut le voyage' in its own right) then it is also becoming better understood what social benefìts arise from bridge-building, an act whose metaphorical weight proves the psychological significance of these structures.” Stephen Bayley, The Observer 24.08.08
“This perfect convergence of architecture and engineering symbolises the renewal of an entente cordiale between two countries, France and Great Britain, which since the end of the eighteenth century have led the way in large-scale engineering projects.” Fulvio Irace, Abitare, February 2005
“We wanted the piers to look as if they had barely alighted on the landscape, light and delicate - like butterflies' legs.” Norman Foster, 2011
“With a 2.5km span, the Millau bridge is far from the longest in the world, yet it is surely one of the most beautiful. In terms of artistry, it challenges the Garabit viaduct, which Gustave Eiffel built across the River Truyère in 1884.” Jonathan Glancey, The Guardian, 16 November 2004
“To watch Foster's bridge emerge from the mist is one of the most thrilling architectural experiences you can have. The strength of the project is that it does not try to pretend it is part of this natural landscape. Nor does it attempt to be sculpture. It is a magnificent piece of infrastructure.” Kieran Long, Icon, March 2005
“People go to Pisa to see the leaning tower and Paris to see the Eiffel Tower. We hope they will now come to Millau to see the viaduct.” Jacques Godfrain, Mayor of Millau, quoted in The Independent, 25 October 2004
“Delicate butterfly of concrete and steel, the Viaduct of Millau soars across the sky as if eager to proclaim that no bridge on earth is taller. Yet its arrogant daring can surely be forgiven. It took a feat of engineering and a leap of the imagination to span the rough, rugged Tarn Valley in the Midi-Pyrénées region of southern France. The result is breathtaking.” Elaine Sciolino, International Herald Tribune, 15 July 2005
“Millau is in the tradition of the great European viaducts by Robert Maillart and Christian Menn, but on an even larger scale. It is a triumph of modern technology and construction and an example of the best collaboration between engineering and architecture.” Tony Hunt, The Architectural Review, June 2005
“The Millau Viaduct is a magnificent example, in the long and great French tradition, of audacious works of art, a tradition begun at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries by the great Gustave Eiffel.” President of France, Jacques Chirac, speaking at a reception to celebrate the viaduct's opening, 15 December, 2004
Height: 270 m
Client: French Ministry of Equipment, Transport, Housing, Tourism and Sea
Collaborating Architect: Chapelet-Defol-Mousseigne
Structural Engineer: EEG (Europe Etudes Gecti), Sogelerg, SERF
Landscape Architect: Agence TER
Related Press Release
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Five RIBA Awards to Foster and Partners