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Michel Virlogeux Milau bridge engineer

World ranking of significant contributors to cable stayed bridges - a very un-British thing to do - is unlikely to include a Brit. The French are not so reticent. Michel Virlogeux would be pretty near the top - and he wouldn't disagree.

A youthful 52 year old, he would normally have the ripest part of his career ahead. Already his prodigious achievements include the record-breaking 856m span Normandy Bridge, and La Roche Bernard Bridge over the River Villaine.

He is founder president of the Federation Internationale du Beton, which was formed in May this year from the merger of the Federation Internationale de la Precontrainte and the Comite Euro-international du Beton. In 1994 he was awarded the ICE's Reed & Mallik Medal, and the Institution of Structural Engineer's Gold Medal was added last year to a galaxy of French and international awards.

His current challenge is the Millau viaduct over the Tarn in southern France, due to start in 2000. Next week he comes to London to tell the exciting tale of its development so far to the British section of Conseil National des Ingenieurs et des Scientifiques de France.

Virlogeux counts himself as a real designer, although others reckon his supreme skills are analytical and mathematical. He gathers around himself private firms of engineers and architects to work on the vast array of drawings and calculations required for approvals today. During construction he patrols his bridges, observing, monitoring movements, nursing them to completion. He is not an academic

boffin.

For all that, he remains a high-flying autocrat of the Napoleonic school. He still remembers - and tells you - his class placings at Ecole Polytechnique, then the Ecole Nationale des Ponts et Chaussees, followed by the Pierre et Marie Curie University in Paris to become Doctor Ingenieur in 1973. He joined SETRA, the technical service of the national highway administration, that is, the Ministry.

A three year secondment on highways planning in Tunisia was invaluable training, he remembers, because it gave him the big picture of what civil engineers try to achieve. Returning to Paris, he fulfilled early promise, made head of the concrete bridge division after 10 years and leader of the steel and concrete 'big bridge' division in 1987. Design and management of most significant bridges in France go automatically to SETRA. At least, that is how it was up to 1993.

Virlogeux would still be working as a civil servant, but as in most of Europe today, civil servants are targets for downsizing. Government

in-house teams which 'do' have become unacceptable: theirs is to administer and get others to compete.

When told that Millau would go out to competition, he resigned to become an independent consultant, with a base for FIB in Freysinnet's office. He gambled that he might still win the job, and it looks like he will.

Future bridges? With a shrug, he concedes that any Tom, Dick or Harry & Partners can be appointed if the price is right, if necessary learning how to design a major bridge from scratch.

That's what happens here too, n'est ce pas!

Michel Virlogeux will lecture on the A75 Bridges and the Millau viaduct and trace the architectural contribution of Sir Norman Foster & Partners on Tuesday 1 December at the Royal Air Force Club, 128 Piccadilly, 5.30pm for 6pm. Enquiries to Darlene Torey at the ICE on (0171) 665 2158.

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