The seedy side of France's second-largest city, Lyon, is being transformed, writes Lee Tulloch.
Lyon is built on a narrow peninsula that is flanked by the Saone and Rhone rivers. The rivers converge at a point called La Confluence. Since the 19th century, the Confluence has been an industrial port, seedy at night, and home to prisons, wholesale markets, slaughterhouses and Lyon's red-light district.
But now, thanks to a $1.6 billion development project, the sex workers and their clients have gone. In their place, an enormous, gleaming structure that looks like a sci-fi death star has descended on the desolate industrial landscape.
The Musee des Confluences is set to open its doors in December but already the formidable building dominates the southern part of the city and is a cause for curiosity for passengers of the cruises that sail up and down the rivers in summer.
Designed by Austrian architects Coop Himmelb(l)au, the enormous structure consists of an aluminium steel "cloud" containing exhibition halls under its roof. This floats on steel pillars and is connected by bridges and catwalks to a glass and steel "crystal", which serves as entrance for visitors and a public forum.
Inside the crystal is a glass "gravity well" like an inverted cone of silence that is symbolic of the museum's mission, to bring science and the humanities together under one roof.
The city hopes the museum will do for the Confluence what Frank Gehry's Guggenheim did for Bilbao (and, closer to home, what MONA did for Hobart): attract visitors to a hitherto unsexy destination.
Lyon is a majestic city, France's second largest, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, famous for its cuisine, beautiful old cobblestone streets, silk production and Beaujolais. But a great swathe of its southern tip was a no-tourist land.
In 2003, phase one of the Confluence development project began, clearing many of the old warehouses and converting what could be reclaimed into new public spaces, restaurants and galleries. A whole new residential district has grown up, featuring innovative and affordable housing. Most of the first two phases have been completed, with the first apartment buildings overlooking the Saone opening in 2010. For locals and visitors to Lyon it is providing a new cultural hub in a part of the city that until recently would have been visited by only the most geographically challenged tourist.
The Confluence district is easily reached by Lyon's brilliant public transport system, which makes travel times surprisingly short from the city's main square, Place Bellecour. Alternately, a scenic vaporetto from Bellecour runs every 30 minutes and drops passengers along the canal in the new marina, close to the residential quarter and the shopping centre. The boat ride costs only $2.80.
I take the subway and then a comfortable modern tram, emerging opposite the old market, facing the Rhone, which will house a dance studio, concert venue dedicated to contemporary music and school complex. This side is still a bit of a wasteland. The handsome new civic building of the Rhone-Alpes government dominates this side of the road, displaying the economic power of this region, which has a population of 6 million, the size of Denmark.
On the Saone side, however, it's livelier. Along the riverbank at the old harbour, where the tracks of the city's first railway line from 1832 are preserved, a number of old buildings have been restored and re-imagined, including the old sugar warehouse, La Sucriere, which now houses a modern art gallery, home to Lyon's Biennale of Modern Art, and Les Salins, the salt warehouse, which is now a restaurant and bar.
In startling contrast are two edgy modern buildings, known as the Green Cube and the Orange Cube, by architecture firm Jakob + MacFarlane. The Orange Cube has a perforated aluminium skin and a cut-out that resembles the sun, a clever way of creating atriums at each level. It's the headquarters of a real estate developer and showroom of contemporary furniture design. The Green Cube, punctuated with two giant holes, is the headquarters of television channel Euronews.
The 1.5-kilometre promenade along Quai Rambaud is now lined with the terraces of restaurants and bars. Quaint old houseboats are docked along the quay but there are plans to relocate these. An old railway carriage has been parked near the promenade as a venue for children's parties.
Part of the residential development is a striking new shopping mall with a roof that is open to the elements, therefore eliminating the need for heating or air conditioning.
The shopping centre has a few restaurants on its upper level, most with terraces and views of the Saone and the marina. But the landscaping encourages people to stay outside, even if it's a bit chilly. There are wetlands and a lake, a family of white swans, and walking bridges. It's a nice spot for a picnic.
Seven thousand people lived in the area before the project began. Once all the apartment buildings are completed the population will blow out by 10,000. The urban design of the residential quarter is truly impressive, drawing on the skills of many different architects. And the ambitions are lofty - it's the first WWF sustainable neighbourhood in France.
One cluster of apartment buildings faces a central lawn that sweeps down to the river, with a communal vegetable garden. Le Monolithe occupies an entire city block and incorporates offices, retail and housing for disabled people. Five sections of the one building have been designed by five architects under the supervision of Dutch studio MVRDV. Eighty per cent of energy comes from renewable sources. Pushing the environmental envelope further is a "passive house", a zero-energy building requiring no heating or air conditioning.
Such innovation has a cost; the neighbourhood is expensive, but prices are moderated. Sixty-five per cent of some blocks have been designated for first-home buyers or tenants, with 20 per cent of the entire quarter designated as public housing.
The neighbourhood also has a sports field, an ice rink, an archive, a science research centre, offices and corporate headquarters and, in two converted prisons, a Catholic university and a housing charity, Habitat et Humanisme. No part of it is more than 400 metres from the water and it will be easy to stroll from river bank to river bank.
A couple of tram stops away at the tip of the peninsula, the new $425 million museum will showcase more than two million ethnological artefacts and present six temporary exhibitions a year, around the themes of death, the origins of life, the history of civilisation and human society, or "who are we?""where do we come from?", "what do we do?".
Lyon is the birthplace of the Lumiere brothers, who pioneered cinema in 1895, so film is an important element in the museum's program, as are music and lectures.
Visitors will be able to reach the museum by boat or tram. The building will be set in landscaped parkland, encouraging picnicking or even a game of boules. Across the Saone, beautiful 19th- century summer houses, someapparently in disuse, stare back at their modern counterparts. If you're fanciful enough, the windows and doors form faces, open mouths. They look shocked at the dramatic change, as well they might be.
The writer was a guest of Globe + Cecil and China Southern Airlines.
The TGV from Paris Gare de Lyon takes two hours. Fly to Paris with China Southern Airlines, which operates 31 weekly flights from Sydney, Melbourne, Perth and Brisbane to its Guangzhou hub in southern China and onward to almost 200 destinations in 35 countries on the airline's Canton Route. Economy sale fares are priced from $1486 year-round return to Paris. Phone 1300 889 628, see csair.com.au.
There is a Novotel in the Confluence quarter but the Globe + Cecil, a family-run small hotel, is charming. It is close to Bellecour and walking distance from most Lyon attractions including Vieux Lyon, the Bocuse Institute and the Croix-Rousse, the silk weavers' district. Rooms from $170, breakfast included. See globeetcecilhotel.com/en.
Lyon is famous for its cuisine and the choice of restaurants is dazzling. To get into the mood, the atmospheric Le Bistrot de Lyon offers a daily chefs' menu of three courses for $36, 64 rue Merciere. See chateauxhotels.com.