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The trajecting curves of the Eiffel Tower. The odd squatness of a bottle of Evian. The mechanical flappy things in the Paris Metro. Think of France and engineering and we (Anglophones) think of stuff that is elegant yet different. Whoever thought of putting indicator lights on the rooves of streamlined Citroens, or who filled La Defence with seemingly over-sized pieces of Duplo, was obviously thinking outside the square.

However one wonders if what makes French design so interesting or appealing is its courage to challenge basic commercial acumen or the laws of physics. Some examples of French engineering suggest that their designers were too quick to unload their creativity before thinking of practical issues.

1. New Orleans

  • Major city and port in Louisiana
  • Year built: 1718
  • Designer: Audrien de Pauger
  • Greatest strength: Cosmopolitan, beautiful, timeless city
  • Greatest weakness: Built below sea level on flood plain.
  • Current status: Devastated by Hurricane Katrina on August 29, 2005, both by cyclonic damage and flood waters that broke the river levees. Currently being rebuilt and repopulated.
  • Lesson learnt: Geography will trump design

    2. Concorde

  • Supersonic commercial airliner
  • Year built: 1969 (first commercial flight in 1976)
  • Designer: Aerospatiale-British Aerospace
  • Greatest strength: Beautiful aircraft.
  • Greatest weakness: Too expensive: fuel prices rose while cheaper telecommunication costs became cheaper.
  • Current status: Of the twenty built, one was destroyed, one was scrapped and the rest are in museums.
  • Lesson learnt: Economics will trump design.

    3. The Maginot Line

  • Defensive battlements on France's border with Germany.
  • Year built: 1935.
  • Designer: CORF Commission d'Organisation des Régions Fortifiées.
  • Greatest strength: beautifully intricate set of fortifications.
  • Greatest weakness: Originally did not cover the border with Belgium because it was in a military alliance with France. As soon as the fortifications was complete Belgium left the treaty. German tanks rolled in through Belgium a few years later.
  • Current status: Mostly dug-up, with some parts remaining as tourist attractions.
  • Lesson learnt: Diplomacy will trump design.

    4. Terminal 2E Charles de Gaulle-Roissy Airport

  • 450 metre long elliptically shaped airport extension, with a futuristic streamlined roof of glass and steel held up by the building's external shell.
  • Year built: 2003
  • Designer: Paul Andreu.
  • Greatest strength: beautifully graceful roof which lack internal supports, that gave more space in the terminal.
  • Greatest weakness: beautifully graceful roof which lack internal supports, that overstressed the external shell that carried its weight.
  • Current status: Portion of roof collapsed on May 23, 2004, killing four. Plans exist to rebuilt roof at a cost of USD$196 million.
  • Lesson learnt: Gravity will trump design.

    5. Unité d'Habitation de Marseilles

  • Public Housing project executed in Brutalism (béton brut architecture) in Marseilles.
  • Year built: 1952.
  • Designer: Le Corbusier.
  • Greatest strength: singuarly beautiful buildings
  • Greatest weakness: Discordent with surroundings, dominating and artificial to inhabitants, energy inefficent.
  • Current status: Fate unknown.
  • Lesson learnt: Sociology will trump design.
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