If you’re fortunate enough to visit the wonderful city of Lyon, you’ll most likely come across the fascinating presqu’ile (say ‘press-keel’) – meaning peninsula. A central feature of the city, it’s a long finger of land that has the feel of an island. It’s framed by the Saône River on one side and the Rhône River on the other. (They both rhyme more-or-less with ‘bone’).
The confluence of rivers, design and learning in Lyon
The presqu’ile tapers off at the southern tip to form the confluence of the Saône and the Rhône. It’s obvious yet visually impressive to see, because the two mighty rivers are often very different colours.
As you gaze into the Saône or Rhône (or both), it’s a fair bet that a local Lyonnais will sidle up to you and quietly say, ‘Lyon is better than Paris, isn’t it?’ This will be after you’ve been in Lyon for about ten minutes after having been in Paris for three previous days.
The correct response is to pause for a reflective moment and then pronounce a most definite ‘Yes!’ Cue a broad smile from your new French/Lyonnais friend. As you’re clearly a person of good taste, you’ll soon be chatting over a pain au chocolat and a coffee – only espresso: after all, you’re not a barbarian.
If you’re lucky, you might be accompanied to the Musée des Confluences, which is located – you guessed it – right on the point of the presqu’ile where the Saône and Rhône blend. And what a sight to behold it is.
Star Wars meets Glasgow’s Armadillo
Created by the Austrian design agency Coop Himmelb(l)au, to describe the building’s appearance as ‘striking’ is a trite understatement. It’s more like ‘stellar’ – and in the wilds of their imaginations, ‘Star Wars’ movie fans might perceive the edifice as a crash-landed Star Destroyer urgently seeking an intergalactic panel shop. Closer to Earth, if you’re from Glasgow you might envision the metallic remains of a feral version of your Armadillo arts venue after an encounter with a can opener.
But really, the complexity and originality of the Musée des Confluences ultimately defies all comparisons or even categorization – well, beyond the arty-jargony term ‘deconstructivist.’ Which is to say that the building’s design deliberately subverts our conventional expectations of what a museum ‘should’ look like: classical and symmetrical in style, formal and ‘do not touch’ in spirit, dark in atmosphere and built from materials that would be largely familiar to the ancient Greeks and Romans. Ah, no – we’re not going there again: instead, embrace the design spirit of now and the future – of the maximised possibilities of steel, glass, space, light and engagement.
The Universe and everything else
But inside the building, don’t expect the past to be denigrated at the expense of a nebulous future. In fact, the past is embraced, interpreted, contextualised, creatively presented and celebrated as the essential gateway to whatever will come next in our lives and our world. The museum presents many of its treasures under the themes of Origins, Species, Societies and Eternities – appropriately enough, with a professed emphasis on ‘the confluence of rivers and knowledge.’
The Musée des Confluences is located at 86 Quai Perrache, Lyon 69002.
By Brad Allan, writer and wine tasting host in Melbourne, Australia and frequent visitor to France…