La Confluence, Lyon

La Confluence in Lyon - Europe's biggest urban development project

Whereas Paris is known as ‘The City of Light’, Lyon – France’s third largest metropolis – is pushing ahead with a city centre regeneration project whose futuristic sustainable architecture can be best described as ‘Factory of Light’.

“When you can see Mont Blanc from the city centre, it is going to rain soon,” they say in Lyon. Rain was obviously not on nature’s agenda on the morning of my arrival: Europe’s highest mountain peak was firmly out of sight. Instead of Mont Blanc, however, I was about to see something much more spectacular. That ‘something’ was called ‘the future’. Far from being just a soundbite, the future was both visible and palpable. Some of it was also livable and lived-in. It was located on the isthmus between the rivers Rhone and Saone, to which old guidebooks unanimously refer as ‘a tongue of land’ – the site of the old Port of Lyon plus 70-odd hectares of industrial wasteland right in the city centre. Dubbed ‘La Confluence’, or the Confluence Project, it was a major part of Lyon’s redevelopment within its historic confines – a kind of regeneration which did not and will not spill out to surrounding suburban green belts and the countryside, as is the case with most similar projects almost anywhere in the world, the latest UK example being the recently endorsed housing development in the green zone outside Cambridge. 

La Confluence, on the other hand, will double the population of Lyon’s historic downtown without expanding its territory, thus bringing the original hub, with its rivers, wildlife and the new residential infra­structure, back to the city while making it modern, sustainable and eco-friendly: emitting no more greenhouse gases in 2020, the expected year of the project’s completion, than it did at its inception in 2000. In short, La Confluence is all about developing the city in the middle of … the City!

City of the future

In the words of Lyon’s mayor, Gerard Collomb, “Confluence will give us a clear vision of the city of the future that we are seeking to build – here and now. This smart city will combine economic growth with a smaller impact on the environment.”

The project is now in its second phase. The first phase was completed last summer, when the Lyon-based Euronews TV Channel and all its 400 journalists moved into its new headquarters in Jakob MacFarlane’s Orange Cube Building, a spectacular red rectangle, with a designer gap in the façade and multiple patio atriums – virtual wells of light – on each level.

La Confluence is Europe’s largest urban development scheme – an architectural Mont Blanc it its own right. So I did manage to see a ‘peak’ after all.

The environment I was exposed to that morning was in stark contrast to the ugly claustrophobia of an enormous, yet architecturally suffocating, 1970s hotel near Gatwick airport where I had spent the previous (sleepless) night before boarding an early flight to France’s third most populated city and its second (after Paris) most important cultural metropolis.

Nestling in a valley and surrounded by hills, Lyon immediately makes a visitor feel cosy and almost at home, as if you have finally arrived at your chosen destination. Unlike London, which was allowed to grow higgledy-piggledy throughout the years, Lyon has always tried to control its expansion, and that historical trend was taken into account by La Confluence’s main developers – the international architectural firm Herzog & de Meuron in cooperation with the landscaper Michel Desvigne. 

Nothing compares to actually being there and seeing with your own eyes the harmonious and highly innovative architectural structures, parks, roof gardens, e-bikes (traffic is very pedestrian-friendly, for the area advocates shared parking and shared electric car schemes) and the rivers adding a special water-colour-ish tint to its natural light. It does look rather like a vision of the utopian future that came to life. But, unlike most urban utopias, La Confluence is for real.  

Tradition

Developing a city ‘within itself’ is not unique to Lyon or to France, although French cities have the reputation of being historically less static than elsewhere in Europe and more open to transformation, remodelling and restructuring.

One simple architectural or engineering solution is often capable of changing the face of a neighbourhood anywhere in the world. In Rio de Janeiro, a cable-car line has altered a formerly unremarkable part of the city beyond recognition. In Barcelona, the removal of an old port from the Old Town has opened up the sea front and made the city centre much more spacious. In Melbourne (I was told that La Confluence’s developers had learned a lot from that Australian city), the construction of the Southbank Quarter on the banks of the once grossly neglected Yarra river had added an entirely new ‘suburban’ dimension to the otherwise highly urbanised environment. In Ljubljana, the pretty Ljubljanica river has been made the main architectural and cultural artery and a focal point of the Old Town, uniting it into one new social entity (I was always of the opinion that rivers connect rather than separate, whereas seas and oceans divide). Yet in Lyon, they went farther than all the above – not so much in the method of urban redevelopment, but in its sheer scope.

The statistics behind La Confluence are impressive, to say the least. The project covers an area of 150 hectares of which 70ha are reclaimed land. Over 750 million euros have so far been invested in the project’s business real estate. On its completion in 2020, the area will incorporate 140,000 square metres of housing space divided among 4,000 apartments; 230,000m2 of service and business premises; 15,000m2 of shops, hotels and other consumer services, and 35,000m2 of public amenities. The number of new homes will reach 4,000, and the area’s population is expected to be 16,000, compared with 7,000 in 2000.

The district, sometimes referred to as the first fully sustainable neighbourhood in France, will also generate 25,000 jobs, compared with 6,000 available there in 2000.

Behind these seemingly dry figures lies a new identity of the old city centre – aquatic, green and eco-friendly, with 3,280 planted tall trees, clean water, clean air and 32 species of wild birds nestling in its unpolluted parks and forests, certified by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF).

“The environmental policy for Lyon Confluence is continuously raising the bar and constantly fuelling the quest for further innovation,” says Jean Pierre Gallet, managing director of SLP Lyon Confluence. “Recognised as a WWF ‘sustainable neighbourhood’, this urban planning project is now aiming to become carbon-neutral.”

Partnership of light

Speaking metaphorically, La Confluence district is being created by the confluence of two ‘rivers’ – Creativity and Technology. The undisputed flagship on the waters of both is known as Hikari.

‘Hikari’ means ‘light’ in Japanese. It is also the name of the partnership between property developer Bouygues Immobilier/SLC and the renowned Japanese architect and engineer Kengo Kuma. Hikari’s aim is to reach an architectural balance between nature and human needs.

Kengo Kuma’s company is one of the Confluence Project’s main players, overseeing the construction of the complex of three highly innovative buildings: Higashi (East), Minami (South) and Nishi (West). Together, they will comprise Europe’s first positive-energy development (PED), meaning that on completion the buildings will produce more energy than they consume.

Due to their box-like shapes, with large triangular notches and extensive glazing helping to minimise the borders between ‘inside’ and ‘outside’, the buildings will be literally full of light, or, in architect-speak, will have “exceptional luminosity”. Made of materials that limit energy loss through their surfaces, they will all accommodate internal gardens, shops and offices, as well as residential premises. The entire complex, which will be finished in 2015, will give the impression of lightness and movement, consistent with Kuma’s vision of nature-inspired architecture. Its main distinctive feature, however, will be not architecture, but energy efficiency.

Each of the three buildings will have three sources of renewable energy production: photovoltaic elements on the roofs and facades, a geothermal energy system, and a co-generation power plant fuelled by locally produced rapeseed oil.

The energy production and consumption will be pooled through a power communication network. A battery storage system will cover the risk of power failure and over-consumption at peak times. It is expected that the complex will consume 1,400MWh per year, i.e. 50-60 per cent less energy than required by the existing thermal design code, and will produce about 0.2 per cent more than that. With the help of the special in-built monitors, the buildings themselves will be able to adapt to changing environmental conditions and reduce or increase their energy input and output accordingly.

Who said that houses were dead? The Hikari complex – like the whole of the new Lyon city centre district – is definitely going to be very much alive. And full of light too.

As it was put by Kuma himself, “Lighting is one of the most energy-hungry aspects of office environments, in particular. As such, light has been both the starting point and the common thread in this project. We started out with the various technical, thermal and energy constraints and sought to find the ideal form. The architectural line we adopted led us to make deep openings in the facades in order to provide as much natural light as possible, cutting down the need for artificial lighting and improving visual comfort.”

Factory of light

‘Light’ – or ‘lumière’ in French – is one of the most frequently used words in modern Lyon, which, among its many other claims to fame, is the birthplace of the modern cinematograph – a machine that records and projects moving images. It was created here – coincidentally – by the Lumière brothers, whose last name (rather symbolically) means ‘light’, and whose first ever film, released here in 1894, was the 46-second-long ‘Sortie de l’Usine de Lumière a Lyon’ – ‘Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory in Lyon’, which a not-too-experienced translator could render as ‘Workers Leaving the Factory of Light in Lyon’.

I would like to stick to that last version, even if it is not 100 per cent correct, for modern Lyon, and particularly its emerging ‘new’ old city centre, can be best described as the Factory of Light, where ‘light’ stands for energy, architecture and lifestyle.  

Further information

The IET has its first Future Intelligent Cities conference on 4-5 December 2014 in London. 

For more information, visit the event website: www.theiet.org/future-cities

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