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Jean Nouvel's Ycone in Lyon's urban context.

At the fork of the Rhône and Saône rivers, Lyon’s growing La Confluence neighbourhood emerges in a collage of contemporary architectural styles. At the very tip of the peninsula, the drama of Coop Himmelb(l)au’s deconstructivist Musée des Confluences sets the tone, while the bank of the Saône belongs to a pair of attention-grabbing green– and orange-clad office buildings by Jakob + Macfarlane Architects, and a varied cluster of sleek apartments. And then there’s Ycone.

The new tower by Ateliers Jean Nouvel sets a height peak for the once industrial area, with the 16-storey building standing above its mid-rise neighbours. Considering the building’s scale, the assertive character of its surroundings, and the Pritzker-Prize winning pedigree of its architect, the project seemed poised to introduce another declarative landmark to the district (it’s even called Ycone). But Nouvel’s design is not exactly that – and it’s probably for the better.

A view of the facade

From a distance, Ycone is recognizable for its angular parapet, which frames a rooftop garden with shading and wind mitigation. Along the tower’s upper levels, an angular facade translates the energy of the roofline down to the rectilinear body of the tower. Up close, the play of angles reveals the building’s defining double-skin facade.

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A partially enclosed outer layer frames the tower in a ribbon of semi-outdoor space, extending every living area out to the open. Behind the permeable outer skin, splashes of colour accent the building’s inner envelope.

A close-up view of the double-skin facade at Ycone

Through the filter of the outer layer, the bold, solid tones soften into a more quietly colourful and varied face. As the balconies fill with furniture, people and whatever else, the building itself becomes a sort of canvas for the evolving tableaux of daily life.

According to Nouvel, “the result, seen from outside, will depend on the set of constraints that get revised, adjusted, and embellished if possible by the story that’s brought us here.”

Inside, Ycone’s 92 residential units feature a mix of 27 social housing units and 65 market-rate condominiums, alongside ground-floor retail space. Surrounding the building, a ring of pear and oak trees will gradually bring a greater sense of intimacy to the street level as they mature.

Compared to the drama of many of Nouvel’s recent projects – including the newly completed National Museum of Qatar – Ycone’s subtlety is a change of pace. In a fast-growing urban district already replete with loud designs, the project also stands apart for its quieter character, revealed through the gradual variations that play out across its liminal space.

Contextual view of Ycone

With a focus on pedestrian life, public space, and pleasantly varied human-scaled density, La Confluence is quickly becoming an engaging urban milieu. But there’s also a hint of second-city insecurity in all the architectural cacophony, with numerous buildings seeming to jostle for placemaking through iconic design. Rising just above its surroundings, Ycone is a refreshing variation.

In Lyon, A Second Skin Frames Jean Nouvel’s Ycone Tower

Setting a new height peak for the popular La Confluence district, the 16-storey building introduces a mix of social and market-rate housing to the neighbourhood.

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