When Jean-Paul Viossat, director of the Rhône Saone Développement, first opened his office in the Lyon Confluence district in 2004, the industrial zone was full of derelict buildings and empty streets. “We lived together with local prostitutes and drug addicts,” he recalls. "They were the only living souls in the area."
What a difference a decade can make. Today, the district, covering about a half of a square mile in the southern part of central Lyon, is dotted with renovated and newly constructed buildings—mostly modern in style—with dozens more planned for the future. In April, one of the area’s largest projects – Lyon Confluences’ Pôle de Loisirs et de Commerces (PLC) – was completed, a 700,000-square-foot shopping and recreation complex, including a hotel and multiplex, designed by Paris-based Jean-Paul Viguier. The project is hard to miss: rectangular volumes clad in wood are topped by a dramatic, undulating roof made of transparent panels that filter daylight into the building.
Similar in scale and ambition to Hamburg’s HafenCity, Lyon Confluence is one of the largest urban revitalization projects now under way in Europe. The undertaking, totaling over 10 million square feet, has drawn an impressive roster of local and international architects, including Odile Decq, Rudy Ricciotti, Massimiliano & Doriana Fuksas, and Coop Himmelb[l]au, among others. The entire redevelopment is projected to cost $1.165 trillion euros and has not been hampered by Europe’s economic woes since it’s financing was previously allocated.
The area’s reawakening began in 1999 with the formation of SEM Lyon Confluence, a public-private company appointed by the Greater Lyon Authority. The initial plan, designed by urbanist François Grether and landscape architect Michel Desvigne, called for converting the wasteland into an innovative, eco-friendly, vibrant work-live-play district that would attract artists, gallery owners, technology companies, and other forward-thinking tenants. The project was named Lyon Confluence because the tip of the district is where the Rhône and Saone Rivers meet. One half of the area faces the verdant, untouched hills of Sainte Foy; the other half faces Lyons’ 7th district.
In 2003, the emerging district drew attention when it hosted France’s annual Art Biennale in the historic Sucrière Building, a sugar factory that had been converted into an event space by Z Architecture. The well-attended event, and the artists who were already settling in the area, gave the redevelopment momentum. “The first crowds that made the drafty buildings theirs were artists and creative heads,” says Viossat.
Over the next seven years several major projects were completed. A plaza, boardwalk, basin, and marina built by Swiss architects Georges and Julien Descombe was constructed on the site’s western edge. The influential local newspaper Le Progrès moved into a new building by local architecture firm Xanadu in 2007. The architect Jean-Michel Wilmotte converted the Pavillon des Douanes, a former customs building, into a complex welcoming galleries and communication agencies. Christian de Portzamparc created a sculptural new headquarters for the Rhône-Alpes Regional Council. And Jakob + MacFarlane built the striking Orange Cube, a commercial building housing offices and a design showroom.
Meanwhile, Herzog & de Meuron, working with the landscape design firm MDP Michel Desvigne Paysagiste, was conceiving the master plan for the district’s second phase, finalized in 2009. Launched mid-2011, it will feature a new residential neighborhood with building of different scales, parks that will connect the area to the tip of the peninsula, and footbridges over the Saone and Rhone.
Today, all eyes are focused on the rapidly emerging Musées des Confluences at the tip of the peninsula. Due to open by 2013, it was designed by Coop Himmelb[l]au to become the city’s new architectural centerpiece—a project akin in spirit to Bilbao’s Guggenheim. The museum will serve as yet another symbol of Lyon’s remarkable capacity to transform a gritty industrial zone into one of Europe’s most sought-after cultural destinations.