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Millau shows the value of architectural input


Norman Foster - an architect - on the cover of NCE? How many of you bristled as his face, framed by trademark black polo-neck jumper and closely shaved scalp, stared up from the doormat?

Well, no apology. The decision to put Foster on the last NCE cover of 2004, the cover that will tide you over until 2005, was designed to provoke. Like it or not, the world of civil engineering would be a darker place without the architectural profession.

I must say that I am not a particular fan of Foster's recent corporate architecture, which seems to pervade our city life. I am thinking of his high profile additions to the London skyline, such as 1 St Mary's Axe (the Gherkin), and the Greater London Assembly building.

Structurally complex they may be - and well done to the structural engineers for keeping them upright - but sorry, I just find them visually bland.

Millau is different. Millau is truly an exciting and dramatic structure and for his part in this wonder Sir Norman deserves all the praise he gets.

Of course he is the first to point out that he was only one part of the team that delivered the Millau project. He was surrounded by structural engineers led by the acclaimed Michel Virlogeux, and worked closely with design and build contractor Eiffage to put this outstanding structure across the Tarn Valley in the south of France.

Nevertheless, it was his project to lead, his vision to deliver.

Certainly the bridge had to be structurally efficient, buildable and cost effective. But more important, the end result had to work for its users - the 'inhabitants' - while gracefully 'marching' across the landscape.

It may be galling for bridge engineers to hear but it is clearly the architectural input that turns Millau from great to spectacular.

Of course, engineering was absolutely crucial. But as engineers we must resist the temptation to dismiss the importance of the architectural vision.

It is interesting that Foster trod carefully in his interview with NCE, mindful of the profession's simmering resentment after he distanced himself from the engineering on his last high profile bridge project. His reaction to the problems on the 'wobbly' Millennium Footbridge across the Thames at St Paul's certainly upset many who felt he should have taken more collective responsibility.

In this world of team delivery you can sympathise with their view. But on the other hand, what we saw was clearly an engineering design problem - successfully resolved to leave a stunning and now much appreciated public amenity.

As with all professions, there are good architects and there are bad architects. There are undoubtedly also good and bad engineers. The fact is that, when it comes to infrastructure delivery, the contribution of architecture cannot be ignored.

As Foster explains, cities are not just about single buildings but a totality of all the links and connections - the infrastructure.

Splitting off parts of the built environment as the preserve of single professions is not a sensible or satisfactory way to improve it. Millau demonstrates that to succeed we need to hold hands more often.

So look again at this week's cover and remind yourself that we are all in this together.

Antony Oliver is editor of NCE

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