The answer for Wolf Prix, Hon. FAIA, principal of the Viennese firm Coop Himmelb(l)au, is that even though he’s now charioteering around with 400 horsepower, he’s kept the guitar. Car and guitar really represent different versions of the same energy, and energy is at the root of his design philosophy. Decades ago, he famously said about his fragmented work, “When you break something, energy comes out.”
Coop Himmelb(l)au was one of the seven firms that participated in the Museum of Modern Art’s Deconstructivist Architecture show in 1988. Although the curators lumped all of these firms together under the same banner, the architects actually represented different ideologies.
Prix wasn’t reading Derrida. He brought both his own Viennese cultural traditions to the drafting table and his own originality. The traditions included a unique blend of influences: He tapped into the Freudian subconscious, referenced his architectural mentor Günther Feuerstein’s interest in subjectivity and physical experience rather than just rational and economic issues, and translated Karl Popper’s theses of open systems and open societies into open architecture. Not least of those influences was his interest, as a guitarist, in Keith Richards’ torrid riffs. Prix espoused an experiential architecture that would intensify feeling.
In 2001, Prix won a competition to design the Musée des Confluences in Lyon, France, sited at the end of a peninsula where the mighty Rhône and Saône rivers converge. The Guimet Natural History Museum, an interdisciplinary institution specializing in anthropology, ethnology, and the natural sciences, was attempting to recast its staid reputation. Following a long-standing national policy of decentralizing and democratizing culture, the museum was leaving the city center to spark urban renewal in a rust-belt zone with no trappings of cultural elitism. By moving out of an academically correct Beaux-Arts building, which represented the classical values of hierarchy, order, and harmony, the directors were escaping the formalism of official French culture, rooted in Cartesian rationalism and Newtonian universalism. Lyon itself was long the capital of French Gaul, its Euclidean geometries still visible in the impressive ruins of its ancient amphitheater and theater.
With its scientific exhibits, the museum was ready to shift paradigms from the Greeks and the Enlightenment to Einstein. It was open to an architecture that was based on a different order, one which acknowledged the non-linearity and complexity made intelligible by a new digital culture.
Prix’s winning scheme embodied the shift. He had already spent decades exploring the notion of energy embodied in architecture, and decades ago said, “Architects have always dreamed of building clouds.” The computer enabled the vision—a faceted, voluminous cloud clad in anodized aluminum, with an entrance housed in an angular glass crystal. Without a center, symmetry, or any other controlling geometry, the non-hierarchical design was Einsteinian in the relativity of its parts, more E=mc2 than x,y,z. The coincidence between the nature of the museum’s scientific exhibits, which include displays of eruptive clouds forming galaxies, and the design of the building itself was “beautiful,” according to Michel Côté, the former head of the museum.
Beyond theory, the design had to make the cosmic local. At the urban scale, the building’s location next to a highway into the central city required that it be a monument legible at 60 mph. Opposite a pedestrian and tram bridge, it had to appeal to people walking at 3 mph. It was also a gateway into a park lined with promenades along riverbanks. While monumental, it also had to be porous, tying into the skein of pedestrian promenades on the bridge and along the riverfronts. Additionally, the high water table required lifting most of the building above grade on a service podium, with a high center of gravity. The long, narrow site lent itself to a linear building, with an entrance at the narrow end.
There was virtually no architectural context, no charming tangle of medieval streets, no neighborhood of properly aligned French façades. If anything, the context was a force field of movement and flow—the varying flow of highway traffic, and the flow of the two rivers forming unpredictable eddies as they converged.
The site was perfectly suited to Prix’s concept of architecture that is broken into parts that are organized dynamically within an energy field. Arguably, the fractal geometries of his anti-formalist formalism were an opportunistic and empathic response to the site, both capitalizing on, and adapting to, its various characteristics. His open architecture and new geometries could meet the multiple demands and opportunities posed by the transportation systems, rivers, and roadways without imposing a single geometric system. Rejecting Euclid and Descartes was enabling and practical.
After a long bureaucratic and political delay, and then four years of construction, the museum opened in December. A wide flight of stairs invites visitors up to a spacious three-story lobby within a steel-and-glass crystal, where a funnel of glass unexpectedly dives down into the space, looking like the top half of a wormhole. In an environmentally conscious twist, the funnel actually serves as a steel-saving column for the glass crystal. The lobby gives access not only to the building but to the site: Without taking off their coats or buying tickets, visitors can walk straight through to the park in back—which will be completed by Coop Himmelb(l)au this spring.
Or they can walk up another inviting flight to the second level, where a tempting ramp spiraling around the wormhole connects the two floors of galleries. They are all organized on either side of wide, long pedestrian streets that connect the front of the museum to pay-off views of the river confluence.
Like Le Corbusier, Prix designed a peripatetic building with promenades architecturales around which architectural events, like ramps, overviews, and long urban and natural vistas entice visitors. In the tradition of the Parisian shopping galleries appreciated by Walter Benjamin, it’s a journey of reflection that allows cultural browsing in the cavernous galleries. Each of the black-box galleries, some sized for dinosaurs, can be closed individually, letting curators change exhibitions without disrupting adjacent spaces.
This museum that houses Jurassic-era behemoths is itself the new behemoth in town. Too new and radical for easy digestion, it is the subject of controversy, not unlike the Eiffel Tower in its time. Some commentators have hailed it as evidence of a new enlightenment in the digital age that is bringing France, or at least Lyon, into the 21st century. Others have railed against what they perceive to be architectural chaos.
Whether ugly or beautiful, the building succeeds, but not just as a museum. It has become an event in the cityscape, an oneiric urban object inspiring curiosity—and perhaps even wonder—in the collective urban imagination. Challenging the status quo, it causes visitors and passersby to think about what architecture has been in this city, what it might be, and how it relates to the displays inside. It succeeds because it is now the institution’s largest exhibit, a subject and a didactic provocation for the interdisciplinary learning that is the mission of the museum itself.
Size: 46,476 square meters (500,263 square feet)