The Millau viaduct bridge connects Paris to Barcelona in spectacular style. Nothing prepares first-time travelers barreling up toward Paris on Autoroute 75 for the Millau Viaduct, a long and towering white apparition that suddenly appears around a bend of the Massif Central. Framed by the windshield, seven lithe, stately masts, each with fanning cables, sail 1½ miles across the Tarn Gorge, holding up a roadbed 885 feet above the Tarn River, above even the cloud line that often shrouds the valley.
From its ribbon cutting in 2004, the viaduct was destined for Guinness: When finished, it had the highest road deck in Europe, the tallest piers and highest bridge tower in the world, and the longest launch of a bridge deck. It even displaced the Eiffel Tower as the country’s tallest structure. Engineers took the curvature of the Earth into their calculations. But more than a wonder of epic size and technology, the gracefully curved bridge, supported on needlelike piers, is a masterpiece of daring and majesty.
The architects wanted the structure to look as delicate as possible, almost floating so motorists would feel as if they were flying their cars. The designers buried the foundations deeply, so that the piers supporting the bridge would shoot up from the ground like “blades of grass” with no apparent support. They also extended a split at the top of the concrete pier beyond the roadway into the steel masts above, forming an A frame. From the valley below, each pier and mast merge to look like a single needle with an elongated eye. They gently bent the bridge on a 12-mile radius, creating a smooth, shallow curve that gives motorists at either end a view of all the masts at the same time.
The architects painted the cables white, so that they would disappear into the sky on overcast days, and complement the blue of clear skies. They banished any clutter, including signage. They illuminated the piers and the masts so that they appear to be bright exclamation points lofted in the night sky.
The Viaduct Millau is a beautiful object as well as a beautiful experience no matter how you cross it.