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Musée des Confluences in Lyon by Coop Himmelb(l)au

The Musée des Confluences, four times over budget, eschews proportion and geometry in an orgy of gratuitousness

Architecture can be a slow and lumbering beast, especially when it comes to complex, large-scale cultural projects. Look at the British Library (AR June 1998), decades in the making, and already a period piece when it finally arrived. The 14 years it has taken to realise the Musée des Confluences in Lyon – 10 years late and still not finished at its inauguration in December – are also enough to make it a period piece. And what a period. For this will be the last (in France at any rate) of the pharaonic, pre-financial-crisis behemoths directly inspired by the success of the Guggenheim Bilbao (AR December 1997).

First mooted back in 1999, two years after Bilbao’s triumph, the Musée des Confluences was, like its model, intended as the keystone in the revitalisation of a former industrial area – in this case a spit of land running south from central Lyon, 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) was to rise from the ground, one that would mix science, art, anthropology and new technologies in a liberating confluence of popular accessibility. Given the diverse nature of the collections, this was arguably the only possible approach, since the new institution was to be home to tout et n’importe quoi: the holdings of Lyon’s natural-history museum, whose origins dated back to a 17th-century cabinet de curiosités; the holdings of the former Musée Guimet in Lyon, assembled by a 19th-century industrialist who created a museum of religion from his eclectic collection of art and objects; the holdings of the former Musée Colonial de Lyon; and the ethnographic collections put together by the Catholic missions of the Œuvre de la Propogation de la Foi from 1822 onwards.


Site plan

The obligatory architectural competition was held in 2000, the results being announced in March the following year with opening planned for 2005. Of the seven entries, from hand-picked competitors including Steven Holl and Peter Eisenman, it was the most m’as-tu vu that won: Coop Himmelb(l)au’s ‘Crystal-Cloud’, a project that ‘doesn’t impede access to nature, but which constitutes a passage of built elements towards nature’, according to its charismatic lead designer Wolf Prix. The choice was controversial, the museum’s ‘Deconstructivist’ architecture (how quaintly old-fashioned that term sounds now) appearing rather too obviously Bilbao for many. And contention would dog the project forever after due to its ‘scandalous’ tardiness and spiralling costs.

In 2000 the museum was budgeted at €61 million, but since then the bill has rocketed to at least four times that, the official figure now standing at €255.4 million. Various excuses have been given about inflation, the rise in the cost of materials, the initial constructor who threw in the towel (causing the building site to be shut down for two years while new tenders were sought), the architects’ ‘lack of definition’ which meant ‘redoing all the calculations’ (according to the company that built the steel frame) and the unstable nature of the riverside site, whose consolidation swallowed up all the initial budget and more. But it must be said that giant budget overruns are not uncommon in France: the Centre Pompidou Metz (AR June 2010) came in at 1.8 times its initial price, the Louvre Lens (AR March 2013) at 1.7 times, the MuCEM in Marseille (AR August 2013) at 1.9, while Jean Nouvel’s recently inaugurated and still unfinished Philharmonie looks set to more than double its initial estimate.

‘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’

What seems clear in the case of the two worst offenders, Confluences and the Philharmonie, is that costs were deliberately underestimated at the outset to ensure the projects were rubber-stamped by France’s finance ministry. In Lyon, everybody must have known that a site at the confluence of two major rivers would consist in shifting sands, and that Prix’s elaborate project was not going to be cheap or easy to build even on stable foundations. During the Philharmonie competition, Zaha Hadid was simply not playing the game when she estimated her project at €300 million; Nouvel pretended his could be built for €173 million, which is what everyone wanted to hear (the final bill will be in excess of €381 million).

But nothing is new under the sun: in the 19th century, Charles Garnier’s Opéra took 15 years to complete and was vastly over budget due to unforeseen problems with soggy foundations. And what seemed scandalously ruinous then has now become a heritage jewel in Paris’s crown. Furthermore, as Confluences’ current director, Hélène Lafont-Couturier, points out, cost is relative – for the same price as the museum building you would get a mere 40km of motorway she says – while for Coop Himmelb(l)au, the museum is ‘less expensive than a fighter plane which in five years’ time would have crashed, been shot down or sent to the breakers’. So the €255.4-million question is, has Lyon acquired a masterpiece that future generations will cherish?

Coopconfluences floorplan

Floor plans - click to expand

On arriving at the site, the first thing to hit you is the building’s gigantism. Many are the epithets that have been applied to it – spaceship, beetle, lizard – but seen from the Parc des Berges it resembles nothing so much as a cyborg dinosaur lurching towards the water’s edge (arguably the perfect metaphor for a 21st-century natural-history museum). Programmatically, it’s divided into three main parts. Firstly there’s the sober and practical concrete plinth, which houses auditoria and conference rooms, as well as the reserves and other technical spaces. Standing on the Lyon end of the plinth is the ‘Crystal’, a giant steel-and-glass entrance foyer containing vertical circulation, ticket desks and the museum shop.

Abutting the Crystal, facing the confluence, is the blind, aluminium-clad ‘Cloud’, raised up on amorphous supports and housing orthogonal, black-box exhibition space on its two lower levels (nine galleries in all: five for temporary shows, four for permanent displays) and the museum administration and cafeteria above. According to Prix, ‘The Crystal developed from the idea of turbulence. We tried to build a sense of flow into the Cloud, complete with interruptions in its volumes for various uses, which are like eddies.’ Between the plinth and the Cloud, directly accessible from both the quaysides and the Crystal, is an outdoor space containing pools, fountains and the museum brasserie, and which continues seamlessly into the small landscaped park that marks the mythical tip of the site, the confluence itself.

‘This staircase, it turns out, is the only place inside the museum from which the confluence can be seen, in what feels like a monumental anti-climax’

Entry is gained up the dinosaur’s arse, so to speak, a flight of steps depositing you inside the cavernous Crystal. To access the galleries you can either take the direct route, via vertiginous escalators, or follow the promenade architecturale that is the ‘Linking Space’ (as the architects call it), a suspended walkway that performs all variety of dramatic acrobatics in its ascent. Whichever you choose, you’ll have a good view of the ‘Gravity Well’, a sort of steel-and-glass vortex that is both column and roofing and which provides ‘a refrain both to the structural efforts and to the luminous sculpture’ (as Coop Himmelb(l)au’s website tells us). Once inside the Cloud, visitors will find the spacious, no-nonsense black-box galleries stacked up on top of each other either side of very broad corridors, which are linked by a partially glazed staircase at the far end. This staircase, it turns out, is the only place inside the museum from which the confluence can be seen, in what feels like a monumental anti-climax. Likewise, the cafeteria on the roof is spectacularly unspectacular, with severely restricted views.

Prix’s take on the museum’s setting is that there wasn’t much of a context to react to, apart from having to compete with two major waterways, a motorway and a railway line, and that therefore his building needed to create the context itself. Seen thus, it can be read as a giant piece of sculptural landscaping that creates an architectural event at this strategic spot, an entrance totem for travellers arriving in Lyon from the south. But was ever the breach between intent and execution wider than in this ‘Crystal-Cloud’? Quoting Moby Dick, Prix said when interviewed about the museum, ‘“Would now the wind but had a body.” That’s how I imagine architecture. There’s no more gravity and above all no more columns. It’s more a question of buildings hooked to clouds …’ But boy has gravity caught up with this column-mounted mass of steel, concrete, glass and aluminium. Where, in the competition images, the Crystal appears scintillating translucent, in reality it’s about as crystalline as a colander, vastly thicker members having been needed than shown in the renderings. Presumably the Gravity Well was intended to symbolise that old ’60s dream of swirling immateriality, but as built it’s ludicrously static and clunky. In one sense, however, the museum lives up to Prix’s words: the icy winds that rush up the Rhône valley are channelled to maximum velocity through its ‘passage of built elements towards nature’.

Musée des Confluences

Coop Himmelb(l)au’s ‘Crystal-Cloud of Knowledge’ is a pale imitation of Gehry’s Bilbao Guggenheim

Two recent French projects that also treat architecture as landscaping are Frank Gehry’s Fondation Louis Vuitton (AR November 2014) and Nouvel’s Philharmonie. Both are as gigantic as the Musée des Confluences, and have the same tendency towards the mountainous, but at least you can actually climb up them to enjoy the view. Here you’re meant to observe the city of Lyon from inside the Crystal, but the structure is so heavy and distracting you barely notice what’s outside. And while the Linking Space provides its own self-referential drama, it’s let down by a total lack of mystery – since everything is instantly visible on entering, you learn nothing new about the space going round the Crystal’s promenade architecturale. Moreover, practical aspects seem to have been entirely secondary: the escalators go straight up next to the entrance, but first you have to go all the way to the back to get your ticket, while the lift down to the plinth was clearly a late addition judging by the ugly concrete box that houses it, right next to the front door.

Great architecture of the past was so often about creativity within the boundaries of rules, but here, in a late flowering of 1960s iconoclasm, all rules have been thrown to the eddying wind. While proportion and geometry guided the Gothic, the Classical and Le Corbusier, Prix’s deliberate eschewal of all that, coupled with apparently limitless funds and an architecture-school disdain for practical constraints, resulted only in an orgy of gratuitousness. The fault must partly lie with the brief: do 6,000m2 of gallery space really require 17,000m2 of auxiliary spaces (of which the reserves represent just a fraction, with conservation being undertaken off-site) floating around in a carcase of 40,000m2? What discipline there is in this project comes from the builders and engineers, who did a heroic job getting this amorphous mass of civil engineering to stand up. A particular problem was posed by the expansion of the Cloud’s steel frame, due to wind and temperature change, on top of its monolithic concrete supports, so special neoprene joints were devised to stop it from stressing the viaduct-style piers.


Section AA - click to expand

Meanwhile, some poor soul had to oversee the endless calculations needed to get the Cloud’s 17,000 non-identical aluminium cladding panels to fit together. But, despite the engineers’ best efforts, the more you try to deny material and gravity, the more they’re in your face – in this building the divorce between intention and effect is absolute. Indeed divorce reigns supreme throughout the project: between architects and engineers, between ideas and execution, between materials and the senses, and also between content and container. For really the vast spaces inside the entirely self-referential Cloud could contain absolutely anything. In consequence, it shouldn’t be too difficult for the city to convert the building into a leisure centre or shopping mall once the museum becomes too expensive to run, which it almost certainly will given that cleaning of the Crystal alone is estimated at €100,000 a year.

‘In truth it is all hollow, arduous, exhausting, bleak and boring. It is no longer about lively discussion and criticism of topics in contemporary architecture, but rather about empty, conservative and perhaps populist shells that are charged with feigned meaning’, yawned Prix on the subject of the 2010 Venice Biennale. As FAT’s Charles Holland tweeted at the time, ‘Wolf Prix say hello to black kettle. Kettle, say hi to famous pot Wolf Prix.’

Musée des Confluences

Architects: Coop Himmelb(l)au

Photographs: Courtesy of the Architect

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