For better or for worse – Sir Norman Foster and Me


It all changed when I set eyes on the Millau Viaduct, Sir Norman Foster’s masterpiece in southern France. I fell in love with Sir Norman, and we ‘met’ again in Berlin, where I was seduced by his reworking of the Reichstag. Until I crossed the viaduct, I would happily have scorned any modern man-made structure, no matter how high, wide or – in some eyes, but never mine – handsome. Instead, I had always shown unwavering fidelity towards Mother Nature’s mountains and lakes, waterfalls and deserts, even in the face of a wink here from the skyscrapers of New York or a seductive smile there from the Guggenheim in Bilbao. I decided to keep my affair with Sir Norman secret.

But now, I’m driving down the E902 in Andalucia, my rear-view mirror full of the towering Alpujarras mountains, but gradually being distracted by the man-made structures of southern Spain.

First of all are the windmills, not those that were famously tilted at by Don Quixote, but the massive edifices that generate electricity from their perches on the rooftops of Mother Nature’s hills. I am in awe as they rotate, the shadows of their blades apparently stroking the parched landscape below, yet without – of course – leaving a single scratch on the earth they caress. Leave the road at the Lanjaron turnoff, and a couple of kilometres off the main road you can park your car and get as up close and impersonal as you wish to these modern giants. Ugly to some, suddenly graceful to me.

Next, back on the road south, come the dams and hydroelectric stations, and the fake lakes that have added character to the landscape to the left and right of the motorway. When the road finally turns westwards towards Malaga, metamorphosing into the E15-N340, man-made creations threaten to completely take over. At times, coastal Spain both north and south appears to be a giant exhibition of tunnels and viaducts, cut-aways and bridges. Showing disrespect to the coastal foothills, they stride across or bore straight through nature’s would-be obstacles. (The Basque and Cantabrian coastal roads are not dissimilar to the Costa del Sol’s thoroughfare.)

At one point, near Almunecar, the unbroken sequence of my journey is a whirlwind tunnel-viaduct-cut-away-tunnel-viaduct-tunnel, all in the space of four kilometres. Each tunnel and viaduct has a name, and each proudly boasts its length in metres (though, curiously in the case of the latter, not its height. It’s a bit like a woman who brags about her breast measurement, but is coy about her waist.)

I am enjoying my new love-affair with these siblings of Millau, when just before Algarobo, summiting a small hill on the carratera, the true character of the Costa del Sol unfolds before my eyes: stretching as far as the eye can see, like shoppers pushing around the bargain tables in the January sales, is the massive huddle of tower-block hotels and apartments that I had conveniently forgotten about. Now, I am looking over them, rather than overlooking them.

A few days before, I had visited the Alhambra and the beautiful city of Granada, with its distinctive Moorish towers and roofs. Perhaps in a few hundred years’ time, people will wander the streets of Torre del Mar, of Benalmadena and Torremolinos further west, and admire the structures thrown up in the 20th century to cope with the mad rush for the sun. Perhaps our descendants will take open-top bus tours around the estates of concrete villa developments, gazing in wonderment. Perhaps.

My consolation is that I won’t be around, so I am safe to speculate that they won’t do any of those things. My thoughts return to the soothing images of the mighty Alpujarras peaks, with snow still on top in September while temperatures below threaten to break 40 degrees Celsius. My love affair with modernity has been just a brief fling.

Sorry, Sir Norman – it’s over.

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