Billington, David P. 1990. Robert Maillart and the Art of Reinforced Concrete. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

———. 1997. Robert Maillart: Builder, Designer, and Artist. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Maria-Pia Bridge

Oporto, Portugal

Located at the mouth of the Douro River, Oporto is the capital of northern Portugal and the second-largest city in the country, rising steeply from the deep river valley. In 1875 the railway between Lisbon and Oporto was almost complete, and the final problem facing its builders was crossing the Douro. An international competition attracted only four entries, three from France and one from England. Gustave Alexandre Eiffel’s winning proposal for the “transparent” Maria-Pia Bridge was not only the least expensive—two-thirds that of the next tender and only one-third of the highest price—but it also involved revolutionary structural design.

Although Eiffel is best remembered for the Eiffel Tower in Paris, much of his professional life was given to building bridges. Upon his graduation from the École Centrale des Arts et Manufactures in 1855, he was employed by a firm in southwestern France that produced steam engines and railroad equipment. In 1858 it won a contract to erect a railway bridge over the Garonne River near Bordeaux; Eiffel oversaw the construction, which was completed in 1865. The following year he set up business as a “constructor,” designing and fabricating metal structural work, especially in wrought iron. After 1872 foreign contracts came his way, and three years later he designed the Maria-Pia railway bridge in Oporto.


Maria-Pia Bridge, Oporto, Portugal; Gustave Alexandre Eiffel, engineer, 1877–1879.

Eiffel supported the railroad deck 190 feet (57 meters) above the river with a graceful, filigreed wrought-iron arch spanning 525 feet (160 meters); the approaches to the center span were borne on lacy framed pylons of varying heights to accommodate the sloping banks. Construction started in 1877, and