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One of the most important issues to reflect on in any city with hundreds of years of history is the debate between the specific city and the generic city. The old parts of cities always tend to have a certain identity underpinned by its history, by the use of a certain material (Toulouse), by a geographical accident (Venice), by the resilience of certain residents who have used it in a specific way (Madrid). By its temporal proximity to a certain war or natural catastrophe that could have destroyed it (Berlin, Lisbon). The causes are multiple and often intersect, meaning that they cannot be studied simplistically.

The French city of Lyon is suffering from a highly ambitious process of transformation which is currently in a phase that enables results of this process to be extracted. This process is the result of a series of decisions – some controlled and some uncontrolled – that have managed to rectify in time some hasty and costly decisions that could have led to a resounding urban failure. Let’s analyse this.

In terms of economic importance, Lyon is the second city of France, a country which is in fact more decentralised than one may at first think: its network of cities enjoys good health, managing to balance the structural macrocephaly brought about by the existence of such a great worldwide capital as Paris, distributing its population and wealth across the whole territory in a fairly efficient manner. Lyon is the financial capital of France. It was the first city of the country, and of Europe, to be connected to its capital via a high-speed train (the TGV). It has a cultural life that in some ways rivals and even eclipses Paris itself: one need only look at what happens in its restaurants. Ore we could also note that this is the city where cinema was born (1). It has a unique urban history: while debates about utopic socialism shake Europe on the basis of theories that leave behind scarce material evidence, in Lyon, a local architect named Tony Garnier is working to build a new ideal city, creating a school of thought along the way, and managing to single out part of the architectural heritage on the basis of beautiful pioneering constructions in reinforced concrete which have managed to overturn the popular reticence towards this material, turning it into one of the distinguishing marks of the city.

Like many other European cities, Lyon is a fluvial city set upon the banks of the Rhône, which served as the city’s geographical limits for centuries. In the south part of the old city the Rhône joins with the Saône in a harmonious way, leaving a silty bedrock (made up of marshes) between the two rivers in the shape of a spearhead. Between the end of the 17th century and the 19th century, the city’s fluvial facade at the Rhône was consolidated and at the end of the 20th century the city needed to expand into the river. This is an important point and one that finds an analogy in what Cerdà anticipated in Barcelona, when conceiving its Eixample: expanding the city significantly means implicitly displacing its centre of gravity from an initial meeting place or small square on the scale of the old fabric of the city, to the large urban centre of the whole extended city: the Plaça de les Glòries in our case. The land chosen to expand the city naturally is the part that hangs from this peninsula, which is between the converging waterways of the Rhône and the Saône, known as the Confluence.

In the case of Lyon, this means that the fluvial facade that constituted the city limits could turn into the main facade of a city that has gone from living, breathing and structuring itself upon a river which has traditionally turned its back on it. The facade looking onto the course of the Saône is also starting to be considered as the new urban boundary point.

In order for the fluvial facade of the Rhône to function as a new urban centre, the confluence zone needs to represent something on the same lines as a new fluvial facade that extends and completes the first one.

And each one of them must be a sign of its own times.

Within this context, a competition was organised during the 1990s to plan the Confluence.

The competition was won by Martorell Bohigas Mackay (MBM), a team of architects from Barcelona. MBM belongs to the second generation of architects of the Modern Movement and are capable of being self-critical in a way which is not exempt from a certain scepticism towards the urban postulates of the first, more orthodox Modern Movement, which defined a modern city on the basis of strict zonification and the hierarchisation of fixed uses that left entire neighbourhoods with a fabric that is structured, but without visible signs of life or identity: functionality with no soul or charisma.

MBM’s Confluence (3) is a city formed, organised and worked on from the public space. It is a city that will not be zonified, but rather hierarchised according to the intensity of one particular use over another, in a fabric in which the diversity of combinations takes pride of place. This is an important fact taking into account that this is not virgin territory, but a setting in which the entire industrial fabric of the city could be found. The Confluence is a city that will take on board the contradictions and clear imperfections that give it life, over and above strict questions of functionality. In this sense, there will be no need for tours. The plots to be occupied by promoters will not be managed as directly as packages of land bordered off by high fences and served by access roads, but will be managed instead with the aid of dividing walls, interior passages and porches. Urban facades. Variable volumetrics. Open blocks. It will be a fabric of sorts, but generic in many ways: sensitive to the flows that stem from the old city, to geographical accidents, to the specific needs of traffic, it will not yet have sufficient urban identity of its own to compete with the consolidated city of Lyon. MBM’s new neighbourhood will thus reclaim its role as an expanding element; as a subsidiary fabric of what was already there. It is, in other words, a suburb. Well-planned, correctly structured, human and sensitive. But a suburb nevertheless. As such, it does not come with its own identity. Or it will not come a priori with the sufficient dosage of identity desired or needed by the city.

The city will therefore carry out a strange manoeuvre: instead of starting to execute the plan it will leave the existing fabric in God’s good hands while it concentrates on building the equipment that will single it out. The Lyon planners start the city expansion issuing decrees on exceptions even before they are in possession of the norms. The result is an international competition for the construction of an enormous museum on the same point as the confluence of the two rivers; a construction with an indefinite programme that could create a Guggenheim effect on the city. Copp Himmelb(l)au were to be the winners, with a building of sinuous volumetrics, inspired by the waves and turbulence created by two waterways when they join together: an anti-urban and autistic volumetrics, empty of all urban meaning (4).

The city neither is, nor is expected. The building will not live up to it. Nowadays it has been forgotten by the habitants of the city who do not think it is related to them.

Planners pick up straight away on the worrying isolation of the building and draw up a plan to be submitted to the city.

Once again this will not be an urban plan but a landscape plan: a collection of unique buildings (5) which, linked to each other through colour, stretch out the constructions to an area that can now be considered city: the area where MBM were to intervene.

The new collection of buildings will extend across the banks of the Saône, linked to the city in one way or another through the urban planning of landscaper Michel Desvigne (6), and built with scarce resources: few indigenous plant species and only one sole type of urban property. This high quality intervention shows that planning a public space is not the same as planning from the public space. A public space projected in a singular way may give the following: a public space, a plot of pleasantly arranged land, in this case a cushion of gardens that absorb and signify the new facade of the Saône. But nothing else. By contrast, planning from the public space dignifies the surroundings. It turns the intervention into a kind of connector that activates its constructed reality which, on the other hand, must conform to a series of rules for coexistence. The entire collection of buildings that connects the museum to the city via the River Saône – all those of sufficient quality that is – is incapable of carrying out this task. The same goes for the landscape intervention.

Once this plan has been carried out, it is then decided that the initial MBM plan has become obsolete in view of this new reality and a new international competition is announced. The new winning team is Herzog & de Meuron (7).

Essentially, Herzog & de Meuron update the MBM plan to the new reality. The principal decision is respected to the letter: the plan must continue to be a public space plan. But this time they will go further: it will no longer be a plan to execute a generic city, but rather a plan to create a specific city for the place on the basis of the specificities of its surroundings. A city that is born from the public space and from the creation of a specific identity for the Confluence Zone.

Herzog & de Meuron start their plan by establishing that the preceding intervention had not managed to create a city but, according to their landscape postulates, had managed to create a new urban facade over the Saône. A facade that, treated properly, could be turned around like a sock and converted into the facade of the entire Confluence. A facade sufficiently potent to be able to enter into dialogue with the historical facade of Lyon. In this way the autistic collection of buildings was automatically included in their project, ignoring the problem of the Rhône facade, stretching the urban enclosure of Lyon to what are considered to be the new city limits.

The second thing that Herzog & de Meuron were to do was to contract Michel Desvigne so that he could continue to develop his landscape plan without variations, from the very point where he had left off, delivering this to the city, and enabling its integration. Herzog & de Meuron thus make a gesture which is as generous as it is intelligent: the public space that structures their plan shall not be defined by their criteria, but rather by those of Michel Desvigne. The landscape plan enters the city and this is mixed with nature.

The buildings to be built will have to conform to a series of very simple rules that are adapted not only to the existing facades, but also to the landscape plan. In this way, specific window sizes will have to be accepted. The colour will have to go: colour is present on the fluvial facade of the old city of Lyon and on the facade of the Saône. The new neighbourhood will be developed in white and grey only.

The rules will not diminish the architects’ creativity nor the quality of the buildings, as testified by the interventions that start to appear in the neighbourhood; some of which, such as the extremely interesting office buildings of Christian Kerez (8) still under construction, follow these rules sui generis. But the plan holds up.

The fluvial facade of the Confluence needs an adjustment of scale, given that the existing buildings are now too small. The city-nature divide is turned into a degradation of landscape intensities. In the area close to the riverbed, Herzog & de Meuron convert their street plan into a plan of singular towers and buildings (9) that complement the already existing ones, duly handed over this time to the more conventional city through Michel Desvigne’s landscaping which now reverts the urban planning of the place, up to the point of helping the marshes naturally present in the substrata make an appearance: in this way, the degradation of the buildings is accompanied by a degradation of the soil, from hard to soft. From more urban to more natural.

The new neighbourhood is therefore one which enables relationships to be made: Relationships between parts of the city. Relationships between its inhabitants. Relationships with its buildings up to the point of turning them into a heterogeneous collection of organisms designed to fit with each other. Harmony and tranquillity. And identity: the identity of a peaceful corner of the city right in the middle of two milestones: the new facade of the Saône, unique and modern, and now nestled harmoniously with the existing facade and the fabric of the old city. The intervention of public spaces is reinforced by buildings which serve to host a whole series of different functions as well as to create landscape. Herzog & de Meuron have not developed a plan that activates and signifies a neighbourhood: they have managed, through their plan, to weave together two heterogeneous fabrics, one of which was in serious danger of being cut off from the rest of the city.

At this point in time, Lyon is one of cities that has planned its own growth in one of the most successful ways seen in Europe. And after all this hard work, they still continue working. It is not for nothing that the city has been declared one of the best places to live in the whole of Europe.

(1) First film of history of cinema: Workers leaving the family-run Lumière factory on the outskirts of Lyon.
(2) Link to the Neighbourhood of the United States of Lyon, trace of the Industrial City of Tony Garnier, work of the architect himself.
(3) Link to the MBM project for Lyon from the website of their Urbanic partners.
(4) Link to Coop Himmelb(l)au’s Confluence Museum project.
(5) Link to Euronews, de Jakob & Macfarlainem’s Building project, one of the last buildings to be completed on the Saône facade.
(6) Link to Michel Desvigne’s project for the Lyon Confluence.
(7) ) Link to Herzog & de Meuron’s Lyon Confluence plan.
(8) Link to Christian Kerez’s office buildings developed in the Lyon Confluence neighbourhood..
(9) Link to the Yvonne, de Jean Nouvel project, one of the unique buildings to be built in the tower area of the Confluence.