The new Lyon city centre is a model district featuring innovative forms and a sustainable environment, realised with sense of State, political and administrative capacity to pinpoint an objective and pursue it over a long but fast-moving timeframe.
The Musée des Confluences, which opened to the public on 20 December 2014, is a sharp-edged "crystal cloud " designed by Coop Himmelb(l)au with a desire to amaze and attract visitors from all over the world to Lyon’s new city centre: 150 hectares of reclaimed land at the tip of a peninsula defined by the confluence of the Rhône and Saône rivers turned into a model district featuring innovative forms and a sustainable environment.
We all know how seriously the French take their architecture. More than all else, it epitomises the State’s presence and its ability to appear, a reminder to everyone of something greater than the sum of the parts – a common good that makes sense of staying together: the city as a res publica where (as well as finding work, amusement, friends and safety) we can enjoy a wellbeing that is greater than what we have as individuals.
This sense of State, this political and administrative capacity to pinpoint an objective and pursue it over a long but fast-moving timeframe, is truly surprising, even more so than the remarkable geometric convolutions of the new museum that appears as we stroll along the confluence.
The opening of the Perrache station in 1857 changed the destiny of this area, delivered from flooding by the construction of embankments in the second half of the 18th century. Lyon’s new central station, with tracks running east-west, cut the peninsula in two and became a firm watershed between the “right and wrong sides" of the tracks: to the north, the modern city centre acquired wellbeing and structure; to the south, beyond the dark station tunnels, it became a fluid and constantly changing space (thanks to the continuous redesign of the docks) with port activities, warehouses, wholesale market, circus and two prisons. The importance of the coal trade and chemical industry influenced the area’s vitality for decades, before then accompanying its decline and superfluousness.
In 1997, the city launched a consultation process on the potential future of the confluence area. The first project (drawn up by Bohigas, Melot and Mosbach) convinced the Greater Lyon Authority in 1998 of the timeliness of a regeneration plan and it focused strongly on a major objective: the possibility of duplicating the old city centre and relaunching Lyon’s image on the international stage.
In 1999, a public-private company (SEM Lyon Confluence, subsequently become all public) was formed and given the task of coordinating the regeneration project, starting with the acquisition and reclamation of the land which was then to be transferred or resold to private operators. In 2000, SEM asked François Grether and Michel Desvigne to draw up a plan for the first ZAC (Zone D’Aménagement Concerté) involving 41 hectares of land along the River Saône. The first building was opened on Place Nautique In 2007. In 2009, Herzog & de Meuron were engaged to prepare a masterplan for the second phase (ZAC2), with Michel Desvigne in charge of landscaping.
Grether and Desvigne’s masterplan proposed a strategy based on an evolving process and that positively exploited its fragmentation to introduce gardens, promenades and canals into an urban fabric featuring a soft and minute geometry, well-suited to a precise replacement process. This overall approach embraced intentionally exceptional buildings that would make the new district a place of experimentation for contemporary architecture with an innovative aesthetic that would appeal to companies, inhabitants and visitors.
By contrast, the next masterplan, centred on the eastern section of the peninsula, divided the area into two zones, each retaining its historical identity: a dense and varied quarter for the former market area and a low-density green space for the tip of the peninsula. The project proposed retaining 30% of the old market constructions for the Market Quarter while also introducing a mix of different types and, most importantly, heights: from the three-storey market to the six floors of the 19th-century city and 16-storey tower blocks. Only low-rise buildings will be constructed at Le Champ, immersed in a rich system of vegetation, canals and water.
Overall, ZAC 1 and 2 will both create a new centre that is home to a complex residential project (a residential mix: luxury 44%, standard 33%, social housing 23%) plus offices, shopping malls and cultural, recreational and hospitality amenities.
In 2000, 7,000 people lived in this area but, on its completion in 2020, there will be 4,000 new homes for a population of 16,000; 230,000 mq of services; 15,000 mq of shops, hotels and other services for citizens; and 35,000 mq of public services. The district ought to generate 25,000 jobs. Finally, the 3,000 new trees constitute another meaningful aspect of this project.
As of 2003, Lyon and the confluence have formed part of the European Community’s Concerted Action programme aimed at highlighting efficient forms of energy use on an urban scale. The focus has progressively shifted from energy to all areas of environmental sustainability and, in 2009, the metropolitan authority forged a partnership with WWF to develop France’s first district with a reduced eco-footprint.
The priorities are: energy efficiency (the first generation of buildings has a primary energy consumption of less than 60 kWh/mq/year compared with the 150 kWh/mq/year legally permitted in 2005; the second generation of buildings lowered consumptions to 15-30 kWh/mq/year); renewable sources (Kengo Kuma’s Hikari complex will feature a mix of photovoltaic and geothermal energy and a cogeneration plant running on locally produced rapeseed oil); sustainable waste management (with local composting and a 70% recycling target); sustainable mobility (max. distance of 400 metres between public transport stops and 0.6 parking spaces per home); sustainable water management with a 50% reduction in drinking-water consumptions (via rainwater recovery and grey-water recycling) and local treatment of excess rainwater, directly returned to the River Saône.
Clearly the overall aim pursued by the city in recent years has not only been to develop a new centre but a new identity, too – aquatic, ecological and innovative. Although the district is still partially under construction, the recently opened Musée des Confluences already represents the jewel in the crown of an extraordinary cultural landscape in which past and future, art and technology, business and local-area management converge in an astonishing adventure.
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