Jean Nouvel’s Opéra in Lyon, from the Domus archive

Thirty years ago, the French architect – later guest editor of Domus – completed one of his most significant works, destined to mark an entire era in contemporary architecture.

“Today, the semicircular roof-vault on the Lyons Opera-house tranforms the view of the city’s historic centre. A landmark on a metropolitan scale, it also signals the city’s largest and most distinguished cultural building. Its expressive impact unfailingl brings to mind the roof of the Palazzo della Ragione at Padua or of the Basilica at Vicenza”. In 1993 Jean Nouvel completed an intervention consecrating him as a designer capable to “metamorphize a context without brutally imposing himself upon it” – there had already been proof of this with the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris completed in 1987 and more would follow – and it is with these words that an essay by Jacques Lucan for Domus introduced the work, and its creator. 

The renovation of the historic building is both simple, almost doubling the volume with a High Tech barrel vault, and highly complex, with the dematerialization of the vault itself in its glass envelope and in the continuous tension created by the extreme sequences of vertical and horizontal spaces. The project, which immediately became an architectural milestone for an entire era, was published on Domus in September 1993, on issue 752.

Domus 752, September 1993

Jean Nouvel, Lyon Opera House

Situated in a prestigious place the Opera-house is a veritable contemporary landmark. Thus it will point up the centrality of the Hotel de Ville quarter and be perceived against the light from the Rhone in the same way as the glass-roof of the Grand Palais. It will assert itself with a simple and monumental emphasis: by the monumentality of its glass half-cylinder doubling the height of the existing building, and by the simplicity of a homogeneous treatment in bent glass sheets to form a barrel-vault. The object is to boost the city’s identity of the city in the layout of urban signals. The pure half-cylinder can be read as complementary to the pyramid of the Crédit Lyonnais tower at Part-Dieu. 

Domus 752, September 1993

The primary structure of the vault is composed of dark grey lacquered semicircular arches set in the axis of the preserved facade. Its underside supports an initial bent glass skin doubled on the surface by a set of silkscreened glass sunblinds. The play of silkscreening, in a dematerialization effect, is applied with decreasing intensity to follow the sun’s course. A mechanical system allows these blades to measure the right amount of sunlight into the inner spaces. This double skin, a filter of superimposed thicknesses, favours the movements of air in its cavity and its dimension (80 centimeters of free passage) contribute an answer to the problem of maintenance. 

Each assembly point of this structure dissimulates a beacon, a red light source which by night regularly spells out the surface of the vault. Facing the Place de la Comédie, the west tympanum, set back behind the statues of the Muses, a glass face patterned by blinds and light horizontal walkways, lets the sky be seen against the light.

At the back of the building, in rue Luigini, a perforated grey sheet-iron half-cylinder, with a slightly reduced diameter, preserves the transparency of the vault whilst its geometry corrects the non-parallelism of the facades of Chenavart’s building.

Domus 752, September 1993

Descent from the semicircular entrance square is made, in symmetry, by stairs that skirt the volume of the amphitheatre. One enters the lower foyer, where a long curvilinear counter faces the glass half-cylinder. This is an auditorium with two hundred seats for performances, plays, concerts... and offering latecomers to the main auditorium a direct video view of the performance being given four levels higher up.

Access to the auditorium is established in a progression of alternating escalators, walkways, escalators, suspended landings. This movement, created by a succession of approaches and distancings, leads us under the “belly” of the auditorium, to the doors. We are now on the first level of the auditorium, situated above the lateral peristyles, connected to the stairs and metal landings fourteen metres from the low foyer of the amphitheatre and under sixteen metres of smooth and tensed vertical partition. Attached to this on each higher level are the superimposed access platforms. On reaching the telescopic doors through acoustic screens we discover the auditorium. 

Domus 752, September 1993

Reminiscent of stringed instruments in a wood and leather case, this conveys the convivial mood of an Italian auditorium and proposes an increased seating capacity: from 900 to 1300. The frontal approach, by a superimposition of six identical boxes, permits a complete democratization of the view. During the interval there are two foyers to accommodate audiences: the first, conserved in its 19th century spirit, has been treated to sophisticated renovation, with a mirror floor reflecting and multiplying the gildings and lights; the second, located in the higher part behind the west tympanum, has a panoramic view of the city. Situated under the upper foyer, the public restaurant with terrace benefits from a privileged position: facing the Hotel de Ville, behind the statues of the Muses, at the beginning of the vault. It is reached by lifts directly from the peristyle, thus making it fully autonomous. 

Domus 752, September 1993

The existing enclosure in the vault subfoundation fixes and modulates the effects of transparency, juxtaposition and detachment from the new parts created. Public entry from the Place de la Comédie is, as before, through the peristyle, which extends on three of the facades and measures the urban continuity between exterior and interior. Now totally open, it becomes a multiple information pole with video monitors and electronic billboards built into the pillars. The closure of the building is assured by a curtain wall whose vertical rhythm of aluminium lines resumes that of the existing piers. The use of identically sized panels in glass or ribbed aluminium allows the necessary transparencies or opaqueness to be obtained in a unitary treatment. Sliding into the space maintained from one facade to another is a network of metal emergency escapeways. existing envelope, descends from the heights of the main auditorium. 

Domus 752, September 1993

At the rear of the building is the stage-sets entrance, the facade being pierced to a height of about nine metres. The door thus creates a theatrical effect in suggesting the imagery of a “secret passage” and is dissimulated in the thickness of the walls. When a stage scenery truck arrives the facade slowly rises as if operated by an invisible device. When not moving, it re-establishes the stone moldings by a superimposition of metal weaves. The existing bays on the Pradel and Serlin facades are concealed by grey-metal perforated sheet-iron sunblinds in a reference to the system used for the glass-roof. The reception zones are entirely glazed on the peristyle and are thus visible from the street. Access to the main public hall is through opaque revolving doors that act as brief transition before the spectator perceives, in a volume hollowed out at the edge thirty metres hugh, the massive and somber plasticity of the auditorium’s envelope. 

Domus 752, September 1993

This totally suspended monumental bodywork, by pushing back its connections to the very limit, seems to be in a state of levitation. A complex and aerial network of communications immediately suggests the possibilities of moving off towards the different parts of the Operahouse, without thereby revealing the really established connections. Access to theatre staff will be possible from the side peristyles. Starting from the streel level hall, a complex of vertical communications affords entry to the various different areas. Below ground level, the choir spaces are organized around the main studio, whose volume occupies the double height of levels -3 and -4. Above ground, against the main stage volume, the artists’ dressing rooms can be glimpsed through the glass roof. Situated in the top part of the building, the ballet spaces benefit from the maximum development of the vault. The building as a whole, with the exception of the auditiorium, is treated with sobriety, utilizing elements of a contemporary vocabulary in an alternate register of transparency and opacity.

Domus 752, September 1993
Jean Nouvel, Emmanuel Cattani & Associés
Eric Maria, Françoise Raynaud, Marie-France Baldran, Léa Thirode, Stéphane Robert, Viviane Morteau, Chaouki Chahwan
Competition project:
Jean Nouvel e E. Blamont Consulenti: Yann Kersale (vault lighting), Jacques Marquet (set designer)
Société Kephren
Société Kephren
Ville de Lyon, Direction Générale des Services Techniques 1986-1993

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