Classicism these days mainly denotes a tradition immersed in the Antique. 50 to 100 years ago, it carried a pervasive rhetoric of central political and financial power by reference to the trophy temple. Here in Lyon we see remnants of a classical approach that produces an organic clarity in the exchange between people and their environment, not without its emblems of power.
Presqu’ile is a long triangular tongue of land shaped by the joining of two rivers, the Rhône and the Saône. Presqu’île is the central district of Lyon and was the target of a major urban renewal and land reclamation in the 18th century and the spaces created back then still hold to its designer’s forms with a spatial clarity that draws the natural geography into a very convincing relationship with the built environment and pedestrian movement.
This is particularly evident in the largest pedestrian square in Europe sited here; Place Bellecour is an immense expanse of red gravel in the downtown area of Lyon.
At this point the Peninsula is about half a kilometre wide and the hill of Fouvriere rises sharply just across the Saône. We were sitting on the edge of the square yesterday looking at this view.
The eye of the camera can’t grasp the spatial interest fully, two eyes are required to feel the scene in its peculiar spatial activity, and two legs to fully grasp it. The hillside buildings are in relative scale to the immediate environment, yet their tone is deeper than it should be. This is partly because of the river that flows in the mid-ground.
To work out something of this visual puzzle we paced out the distances counting 300 paces across the square and another 300 crossing a bridge to the building line on the other side of the Saône, the hill rises like a cliff at another hundred metres or so.
The horse and rider at the centre of the square is larger than life size and up on its pedestal acts as a scale marker for the pedestrian movement across the space. In this vast horizontal space the monument (Louis XIV) draws in the windows of the buildings around the square which are a uniform six floors.
More than this the extension across the unseen but atmospheric river into the hill beyond turns the whole into a mis en scène that has been carefully staged to develop a relative space much larger than one is normally used to experience. The projection of the hulking basilica on the hill built a century after the main developments in Presqu’île caricatures the scene giving it an almost miniature aspect.
I’m interested in the way this design turns and expresses an attitude towards a person traversing the square. As I walk across the space I’m a tiny speck in the far ground of someone else’s view. But I am also rotated on the axis of a spatial other and feel a larger than life exuberance caused by several points of orientation locating me in this spot.
There’s a complexity present here, the equal size of the basilica on the hill and a person in my foreground view produces an exchange between the outer environment and point of view that places me. Am I free to move among these related points, or held to the spot by this syncing of one point to another? Classicism in France is bound up with what appear to be several cross purposes. In the 18th and 19th centuries it was made to signify imperial power as well as carry ideas of democracy ‘representing’ the individual. Neoclassical buildings often command with severe institutional effect. On the steps of the Assizes Court for example one becomes a penitent speck.
The urban design of Place Bellecour together with it’s surroundings exemplifies the commitment to finding meaning in the physical world at the core of the classical outlook: positioning one within the physical environment in ways that evoke both an independence and a responsibility. One is placed in a situation, a critical space where seeing and being seen are inherent in the location of the subject.