The Disturbance of Perception

architect Odile Decq
project GL Events Headquarters, Lyon, France
written by Dominique Boudet


Long famous as a city of developed economy, Lyon is still growing. Each period of economic growth has been marked by architectural monuments and, to an even larger extent, by specific urban forms. Medieval side streets climbing up the hills, straight streets and large squares of this classical city, the neighbourhood of modern skyscrapers dating back to the 1930s, large complexes from the period after the world war… the Lyon territory can be read as an atlas of urbanism. The story continues, but in a very specific area: on the peninsula spreading between the Rhône and its main tributary Saône, the rivers that have shaped the development of the city. At this very location, where the two rivers meet, the city writes a new page of its urban and architectural history. This old industrial and port complex, usually with strong buildings and infrastructure (docks, railway station, fair halls or warehouses) aims to represent the city of the 21st century. The act of renaming the neighbourhood from Lyon-Perrache to Lyon-Confluence displays geographical characteristics (here the Saône flows into the Rhône), as well as a change of status: administrative buildings, shopping mall, residential blocks reveal a slightly pretentious exuberance of contemporary architecture. This dynamics, naturally, had to attract active participants of the new economy. Communication companies, media and it start-up companies have been built on the banks of the Saône. Most recently, the gl Events. This leading company in organization and management of all forms of social activities, sports and cultural manifestations, has decided to situate its new headquarters on a somewhat remote location, at the distant most point of the peninsula. Odile Decq has designed a glass prism which seemingly hovers over the river, and achieves harmony with the location. There is a remarkable cohesion of the water, the green hills which follow the curve of the river, and the magnificent metal construction of the railway bridge. The first decision of the architect was to find a way of exploiting the potential of the location. Here we can notice that the space was not occupied as it typically is, but rather that it was used. There are several arguments in favour of such an impression. While other buildings built on the banks of the river wisely stay in the backround of the harbour, Odile Decq rejects this limitation. The upper volume of the building, a four-storey office block, boldly approaches the river, all the way to the edge of the harbour. This large architectural gesture has been realized by dividing the programme in two volumes: the lower volume on the ground with double height, within the borders of the site, which houses a large hall for all kinds of events, and the office block oriented towards the river, and situated above the first volume.


The distinction between the two glass prisms was subtly achieved by the shift in the volume of the office block, which seems as if it has been turned by several degrees on one of the corners of the lower volume. The floating upper volume offers the employees working in the offices a privileged view, extending to three different sides. Regular passers-by shall find the cantilever interesting, as well. It breaks the monotony of the harbour all the way along the banks of the Saône. While we are approaching the building, it becomes a participant in the perception of the landscape; if we come near, it frames the view differently; on the surface of the water, and towards the railway bridge.


Odile Decq managed to capture the landscape in a completely new way; by projecting it on the façade. Here, the building was not only fit into the location, but the images of the landscape are imprinted on four glazed sides of the façade. It is the work of artist Felice Varini, which restores the parts of the landscape hidden by the volume of the building. Photographic scenes taken from the top of the building were later reproduced in black and white technique on the façades. They were actually screen printed on the film between the glass layers of the façade. The view over the landscape was, however, not printed on the side of the façade oriented towards it. Instead, it was printed on the opposite side. You have to watch closely, and be aware of the artist’s intentions, in order to observe this effect. Nonetheless, the architect definitely managed to disturb the perception with this simple gesture. On one hand, the glass volume was given the effect of density, almost (at least during the day) removing the transparency. On the other hand, there is the ambiguity between the printed drawing and the reflexions.


On the outside, gl Events headquarters is a smooth and puristic volume, the impression is disturbed only by the emergency staircase situated on one of the façades. The impressions of the building are not gained easily. It is in its interior where the visitor is surprised, and slightly confused. Primarily, by the feeling of emptiness. The whole surface on the ground floor is one large, free and unoccupied space. This unexpected effect was gained by dividing the programme into two volumes (the venue for the events on the ground floor, and the block of offices situated above): the building seems empty when there are no activities in the venue. Programmes habitually located on the ground floor of such centres: the salon, the cafeteria, the meeting rooms or the auditorium, have been moved to the upper floors. The advantage gained is that the room for various events becomes a large space which can be extended and connected with the exterior area, while the disadvantage is that the emptiness reduces the dynamics of everyday functioning of the centre. Having been moved to the upper floors, the life in the interior seems to be floating between the sky and the earth.


Visitors are taken away by the structure as they enter the great hall from the lobby. From the outside, through the films on the façade, we can discern large edge beams. In the glazed ceiling of the cantilever visitors can see the steel web, but nothing can prepare them for the amount of structural energy they are about to experience. Odile Decq loves to play with structure, and to produce a strong plastic element of the project using it. In the first building she has designed, the bank headquarters in Rennes, the expressivity was reflected in the exterior. In this project, in Lyon, Decq keeps within the borders of the interior of the building, and emphasizes the impression of an almost unmeasurable strength which keeps growing. The truth is that the building needs to endure the significant force which is created by the 20-meters-long cantilever in 4 levels. We can recognize the main features of the construction plan in the view over the hall, and the central atrium, which stretches throughout the total height of the building: three pylons support two huge double crossing beams which are, at their furthest ends, connected with the edge beams.


This spatial structure carries the office floors. The effect of the hall overwhelms the visitor; the amount of steel elements protected by a thick layer of grey makes the effect even slightly raw. This impression disappears in the office area. Large free plateaus are extended around the atrium. Glass partition walls and fences, and low office cabinets open the view to the entire area, and further into the exterior through the glazing in the height of the rooms.


There is no suspended ceiling, so ventilation systems and other installation lines are visible. The stretched canvas of the white ceiling lamps in the shape of petals contributes to the acoustic comfort. The floor of polished black concrete, red furniture, and white working tables define a calm, arranged atmosphere.


The effect of the last level is, again, unexpected. Management offices are situated in the spatial structure, as if they were placed in the attic of an industrial building. The offices of the management, the secretariat, and the meeting room are surrounded by edge beams in the level of the whole floor, while steel diagonal elements go through the whole communication area.


Lack of colouring, with only several red leather chairs, black floor, furniture made of glass and chromed steel, lack of décor and dim lighting which goes through grey façade, and glass ceiling of the atrium create a very surprising, almost a strict atmosphere. We feel as if we were on a bridge of a war ship. We directly face the office floors, and can see the events happening on the ground floor. A small staircase leads to the terrace which gives a 360 degree panoramic view of the city of Lyon.