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The Spaceship Has Landed: Coop Himmelb(l)au’s Alien Oddity Splits Opinions in Lyon

The Musée des Confluences —named after its site at the meeting point of the Rhône and Saônerivers in the French city of Lyon—is now complete and open for visitors. Its author, the avant garde Austrian practice Coop Himmelb(l)au, is a longstanding stalwart of the deconstructivist movement—and the cataclysm of complex geometries on show here proves that Design Principal Wolf Prix has not forgotten his roots. If the client desired controlled architectural chaos and an outlandish landmark for Lyon, then they came to the right design firm.

The description of the site and design concept for the structure on the studio’s website is typically obscure, and full to overflowing with flamboyant archi-speak:

“The striking interface situation of the construction site at the eponymous confluence of the Rhône and the Saône inspired the superposition in urban space of two complexly linked architectural units, crystal and cloud.”

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The language is as poetic as one might expect from any of the major international firms currently dominating the realm of public building design—Prix has to keep up with Messrs. Libeskind and Gehry when it comes to museum metaphors, after all. A diamond, a fragment, a crystal, a cloud: whatever you call it, just don’t call it a building.

Despite the abstruse introduction though, the intentions behind Himmelb(l)au’s design appear admirable. It has sought to minimize the atmosphere of exclusivity that shrouds many traditional museums and art galleries around the world, attempting to create an entirely open, public space in which the science of anthropology can be presented in an accessible manner. Whereas the typical museum typology has often revolved around the quiet observation of protected artifacts displayed on untouchable pedestals, the program here is intended to encourage social interactivity and the exploration of ideas. Accordingly, the spaces created within Himmelb(l)au’s structure seek to foster the conditions for such activities.

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Rendering of the inside of the "gravity well" inside the "crystal" © isochrom

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Construction on the gravity well. Photo © musée des confluences - département du rhône

The "Crystal" is envisaged as an urban square—a light, open space enveloped by a skin of steel and glass. The architect’s primary aim here was to create an atmosphere of informality. It is hoped that upon opening, this soaring glazed atrium will become a bustling, social meeting place in which people of all demographics will feel comfortable. This may well prove to be the case—but as it was designed by Wolf Prix and company, there was never any real possibility it could remain that simple.

Enter the "gravity well," a formal distortion of epic proportions in the center of the space, bending rigid materials against their will to form a veritable vortex of steel and glass. According to Himmelb(l)au, this is intended to "provide a refrain both to the structural efforts and to the luminous sculpture." Whatever it provides, it brings with it the kind of complexity that provokes major headaches among certain groups of people: namely, structural engineers, fans of modernism’s ‘less is more’ philosophy, and advocates of a more efficient use of materials in this era of heightened environmental conscience.

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The Musée des Confluences under construction, before cladding. Photo via Bonjour Lyon

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After cladding. Photo © Coop Himmelb(l)au

The "Cloud" does not provide much more in the way of simplicity. The firm makes no bones about its otherworldly appearance, proudly pointing out its resemblance to "an immense spaceship, stowed temporarily in present time and place, its deep entrails harboring the exhibition spaces." This hulking form will house no less than ten exhibitions simultaneously, and should provide a wealth of fascinating and varied spaces for all manner of anthropological subject matters. The material contrast between the crystal and the cloud is enticing, but one can’t help but feel the junction between them is rather abrupt, and the façade details are not a patch on the firm’s recently completed and much lauded Dalian International Conference Center.

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The Musée des Confluences truly is a mixed bag—a complicated concoction of disparate spaces and materials, melded together with lashings of excessive flare… as if Wolf Prix wanted to serve up a taster plate of every architectural trick he has learnt over the past 20 years in practice. As a result, Lyon will have a rather monstrous homage to his firm which—for better or worse—is certain to become an instant architectural icon by one of the original deities of deconstructivism.

Yours cataclysmically,

The Angry Architect