“ONLYLYON, A Cultural Antimetabole: Patrimony and Modernity in the Capital of the Three Gauls”

Contemporary French Civilization(s) Conference
August 29th-31st, 2019
Tucson, Arizona

The last thirty years have seen Lyon, in its image and identity, pivot from patrimony to modernity through urban development. For example, the city attained UNESCO World Heritage Site status for its historic neighborhoods and launched La Confluence, a cutting-edge écoquartier on the site of a defunct port. Yet both districts feature innovative renewal and site-specific memory, albeit in differing proportions. How, then, is Lyon navigating the tensions between patrimony and modernity?

Inspired by Lyon’s marketing campaign ONLYLYON, I posit that the city’s approach is an antimetabole, a rhetorical device where elements from the first half of a word are subsequently reversed (i.e. ON-LY-LY-ON). In its historic neighborhoods, Lyon preserves buildings’ facades while subtly reworking their interiors; in La Confluence, it couples innovative exteriors with quiet commitment to preservation inside. To make this case, I examine two recent urban projects emblematic of their surrounding neighborhoods. Anchoring the UNESCO site, the Grand Hôtel-Dieu (completion late 2019) will showcase a restored neoclassical facade while reconceiving in the Cité de la gastronomie the site’s previous function as a hospital to celebrate ties between healthy living and nutrition in dialogue with Lyon’s foodie reputation. In contrast, the Musée des Confluences (2015) features architectural experimentation, yet its glass walls preserve sight lines of Lyon’s two rivers and its exhibitions foreground cultural exchange, channeling the notion of “confluence.” This antimetabolic approach contributes to the city’s image and identity.

In making this case, I take an interdisciplinary approach within French culture studies that considers the city a “prism” (Augé) through which to analyze contemporary France. I advocate a dialogue with spatial-turn theories (articulated by Certeau, Portzamparc, and Mongin, among others) and a methodology, following thinkers such as Sansot, Bailly, and Barthes, that privileges the phenomenology and semiotics of built space.

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