June 21, 2007

Lyon 1 / Firminy / Eveux (France)

After a several hour drive from downtown Geneva, we checked into a small room in Ecully, a 5-minute drive from downtown Lyon.

After fumbling miserably with physical maps, we decided to 'bite the bullet,' and invest in a cheaper GPS unit, the
Tom-Tom One, confident that Garmin will honour a full-refund under the warranty. (By the way the Garmin Nuvi 370 was less than 3 months old when it died). The interface on the Tom-Tom was great in France, graphically showing sequences of upcoming round-abouts, and verbally directing us down side streets that would have taken us hours to find. (All with a heavy female British accent). We realized that GPS is essential for auto travel... there's no argument over turns (makes a smoother ride for us! ;).. it compares routes in relation to cost (tolls for highways, etc), calculates times to arrivals... it also has a built in traffic fm receiver which can navigate around traffic jams. When you take a wrong turn it calculates the next fastest route or tells you to turn around. It lists the closest gas stations, hotels, museums, etc. And of course you can load on your own preset locations with coordinates derived from google maps. We think devices like this will be the next ipod... likely paired with cell phones similar to the new iphone. Try one out if you haven't already.

Monday night we witnessed an amazing thunder storm, something rarely heard in the Seattle area. The rolling rumble and crackling of thunder through the Lyon valley was incredible... several times during the night it was so loud and shaking that it awakened us, hearts pounding. The light show was equally impressive, purplish glowing nebulae-like cloud formations flickering about... it was daunting and beautiful.

Being in France, we knew it was an opportunity for the best food during the entire trip, and our first lunch in Lyon didn't disappoint. Delicately grilled salmon on top a bed of baby potatoes, encircled with small portions of zesty tapenada and fresh pesto. Aya had a beautiful grilled ravioli salad, with generous portions of mixed field greens and fresh tomatoes. Paired with Lager, we were in heaven.

South of Lyon we visited Firminy, which has the largest single-site collection of Le Corbusier buildings in Europe. The highlight of these was the recently completed (11.2006) church of Saint-Pierre de Firminy, finally finished after decades of challenges (design began in 1961, construction in 1971, 5 years after his death). Its difficult to describe his work in words, but if you have visited
Notre-Dame-Du-Haut in Ronchamp, you've seen how Le Corbusier can create a spiritual place with imaginative form and natural light. We were lucky to visit when the chapel was completely empty. If you talk in the space, the sound is very diffused, but if you sing the higher notes of your voice are illuminated by the form of the space, echoing beautifully and extending through the entire chapel. Glass inserted in small circular holes in the concrete on the east side of the chapel create a constellation of pinpoints of light, varying in intensity as clouds move in front of the sun. We were amazed with the depth of color reached with only 4 colors of paint reflecting into the space with natural light. Beyond the overall form, the concrete details were equally impressive. Corbusier always made an effort to express captured rain water on the surfaces of his buildings, the gutter forms on this project are functional and playful (see photos).

Due east of the chapel is the somewhat-dilapidated Sports Stadium. It bears an impressive concrete cantilever and hundreds of steps for seats. Each seat has a spray-painted stenciled number in the Corbu font, most were wearing away. At the other side of the Stadium, is the Maison de la Culture (Cultural Center). Set atop a large rock formation, the building has a steep cant and a sweeping roof plane that are unforgettable. Unfortunately, this building is leaking badly. As we walked through the different spaces, there was an ensemble of rain drops falling into buckets and garbage cans (one room had 20+). Our final stop in Firminy was an Unite d'habitation, one of Corbu's massive housing unit 'habitat densifications,' with 414 homes and topped with a school on the roof at +56m. The building looked to be about 3/4 full of residents.

We had hoped to spend a night or two at Couvent de La Tourette in Eveux, unfortunately it was closed for extensive renovations. However, the exterior grounds were still accessible, so we made the drive. The context around the monastery is a peaceful south france landscape of rolling hills and vineyards. (Reminiscent of the Aalto Mt. Angel Library context in Oregon). The strangely shaped forms looked amazing in the late afternoon sun, we could only imagine how beautiful the light must be within the spaces.

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