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Outrage: Coop Himmelb(l)au’s Musée des Confluences is a harmful, ill-considered, overweening excess

An over-budget, Bilbao-esque exercise in convolution that wastes a rare opportunity 

Arguably it’s all the fault of Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim (AR Dec 1997). Not that the ‘Bilbao effect’ was a new phenomenon: before that people talked about the ‘Beaubourg effect’ to describe the gentrification brought on by the Centre Pompidou, while in the 19th century Charles Garnier’s Opéra was the star cultural linchpin in the redevelopment of a run-down quartier. But Gehry’s Guggenheim did it in such a spectacular way, at the scale of a city, the world took notice, and tried to copy its success.

First mooted in 1999, Lyon’s Musée des Confluences was intended as the keystone in the revitalisation of a former industrial area, a spit of land whose tip marks the confluence of the rivers Saône and Rhône. On this strategic site, a museum ‘like none other anywhere in the world’ (in the words of its first director, Michel Côté) would mix science, art, anthropology and new technologies in a liberating confluence of popular accessibility. The initial impetus for its creation came because the 19th-century building housing the Musée Guimet d’Histoire Naturelle was in dire need of renovation, but, to justify the new super-museum, ethnographic and artistic collections were added to ‘tell the story of man from his origins to the modern day’, in the words of the current director, Hélène Lafont-Couturier.

The architectural competition was held in 2000, the results announced in February 2001, with opening initially planned for 2005. The man behind it all was Michel Mercier, president of the Conseil Général du Rhône (1990-2013), who wanted not only to leave his mark on the département’s principal city, but also to wow voters in the 2001 municipal elections, which took place a month after the competition result and in which he was standing to become mayor of Lyon. So the site had to be the most spectacular of all, and the project the most Bilbao-esque too: Coop Himmelb(l)au’s ‘Crystal-Cloud of Knowledge’. Both choices would turn out to be deeply regrettable.

The budget for the new museum was drawn up before the site had been confirmed, and a sum of €61 million for a 19,000m2 museum arrived at. And this was the figure for which the architects signed a contract in 2002. As it turned out, it wasn’t quite enough to construct solid foundations at the confluence of two major rivers. But worse was to come. Coop Himmelb(l)au didn’t seem to know how to build their complex design, let alone within the prescribed costs. Used to working in steel with firms who presumably did all the calculations for them, they appeared unprepared for a French industry that isn’t anywhere near as experienced. (France is a country of concrete construction: the Centre Pompidou was famously made by Krupp after French tenders proved too expensive, while more recently Citroën was forced to turn to German knowhow for the convoluted steel frame of its Champs-Elysées showroom.) Indeed the first contractor, BEC, threw in the towel in 2008, complaining not only that it had had to redo all the architects’ calculations because of their ‘lack of definition’, but that insurance costs for such a complex structure had become prohibitive after the partial collapse of Charles-de-Gaulle Terminal 2E in 2004. A year and a half was wasted seeking new tenders, with French construction giant Vinci finally picking up the poisoned chalice in 2010.

‘Residents of the Département du Rhône have seen unjustified tax hikes of 18 per cent to finance it’

Completed earlier this year, not only was the Musée des Confluences a decade late, it was also 319 per cent over budget if you believe the official figure of €255.4 million. But CANOL, taxpayers’ watchdog, says the real price, based on its examination of the Conseil Général’s accounts, is closer to €328 million (438 per cent over budget), and claims that a case for a much higher total can be made taking into account the knock-on effects: to meet the extra cost, real estate and shares were sold that, by 2014, represented over €300 million in lost income, and toxic loans of around €450 million were taken out between 2006 and 2010, of which at least part must have been used to pay for the museum. Even though Mercier promised there wouldn’t be any tax increases to finance it, residents of the Département du Rhône have seen unjustified hikes of 18 per cent on certain contributions. Then there are the operating costs. Due to the museum’s elephantiasis - for some reason the 6,000m2 of gallery space is accompanied by a whopping 20,000m2 of auxiliary spaces (of which the reserve collections represent a fraction, conservation and some storage being undertaken off-site) that float around in a carcass of 46,000m2 (gross) - and because of its convoluted design, the annual maintenance budget will be steep, with cleaning of the glass atrium estimated at €100,000pa alone.

If the museum’s architecture were any good, the extravagance wouldn’t seem so bad. But was ever the breach between intent and execution more gaping than in this ‘Crystal-Cloud’? A lumbering cyborg-dinosaur, its column-mounted, aluminium-clad ‘Cloud’ has all the lightness of a lump of lead, while the giant funfair atrium is as crystalline as a colander, vastly more steel having been needed than the architects initially calculated. Did the 6,000m2 of no-nonsense black-box gallery space really need this fatuous, pretentious, exorbitant wrapper? Not for a long time, given the economic climate, will we see sums like this spent on culture, a context that makes the missed opportunity all the more outrageous.

Etymologically the word ‘outrage’ is from the Old French oltrage - ‘harm, damage; insult; criminal behaviour; presumption, insolence, overweening’ - from the Vulgar Latin ultraticum, ‘excess’. This is precisely what is outrageous about the Musée des Confluences: its wasteful, harmful, ill-considered, overweening excess.

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