If the Louvre can come to the UAE, why not an entire city? After an agreement signed earlier this year, plans are already under way for the city of Lyons to undergo a flight of fantasy. France’s second-most influential city, the capital of the Gauls and epicentre of gastronomy, will soon be teleported to Dubai.
A memorandum of understanding signed between Buti Saeed Al Ghandi, Chairman of Emirates Investment and Development (Emivest), and top officials representing the city of Lyons marked the start of the preliminary phase of the project.
Of course, the original city will remain rooted where it has been for the last two millennia, at the confluence of the rivers Rhône and Saône. But an immense copy, covering an area twice as large as the Principality of Monaco, or three times the size of London’s Hyde Park, will be constructed in the desert. The city of Lyons has agreed to provide the knowledge and cultural support to help create a £1.37 billion (Dh10.2bn), 1,200-acre French city 4,828km away.
The Aladdin-like plan to create a mini-Lyons for the Gulf was dreamed up by Al Ghandi. But why Lyons? Why not Paris? Or London? Or Rome?
“I travel all over the world and Lyons is one of those places that make you feel different,” says the 40-year-old. “The people do not live a fast pace of life. There is an intimacy with visitors. There is so much history and culture – the small streets, the small shops, the old houses.”
The idea is not to copy Lyons stone by stone and certainly not river by river. Lyons-Dubai City will be cloned from the architectural and cultural DNA of the French version, capturing its look and its spirit but not precisely reproducing any of its buildings. There will be 3,000 apartment homes in winding cobbled streets or on broad boulevards. There will be cafés and bistros, offices and hotels, trams and buses resembling those in Lyons.
There will be branches of the Lyons fine arts museum and the Lyons textile museum. There will be a French-speaking university and a business school. There may be a football training centre, managed by Olympique Lyonnais, the French champions for the past six years.
There will be a film museum and institute, run by the Institute Lumière of Lyons, which commemorates the Lyonnais brothers who invented cinematography. There will also be a restaurant and hotel school, run by the Lyons-based chef Paul Bocuse.
Al Ghandi says while strolling through Lyons last October, he and his wife fell in love again. “That’s also why I love Lyons,” he adds.
He, and the City of Lyons, insist this will be no vulgar Las Vegas or Disneyland. The idea is not to pastiche Lyons but to recreate its atmosphere and spirit and culture, even its soul.
Dubai and Abu Dhabi are already on their way to become a high-class, cultural playground and global meeting place for the rich and super-rich. Dubai has more visitors per year than Egypt.
In Abu Dhabi construction has begun on Saadiyat island where there will be three large arts museums, including branches of the Louvre in Paris and the Guggenheim in New York. There will be a vast theatre and concert complex with five auditoriums that will cost £1.5bn. Dubai will build an opera house and concert hall and a desert home for the globally popular art-circus, Cirque du Soleil.
In Qatar, more than half a dozen museums have already started to be built, including a futuristic museum of Qatari art, designed by the French architect Jean Nouvel. A much larger museum of Islamic arts, designed by Jean-Michel Wilmotte and Ieoh Ming Pei, who created the pyramid at the Louvre in Paris, opens in Doha this year.
Even Bahrain is building three museums and a theatre for its population of 640,000.
“They all know that oil is not eternal and they want to create an economy of knowledge,” says Yves Gonzalez-Quijano, head of a French Middle East research body. “Unlike Western nations, they have decided that culture is a good investment.”
Some Western businessmen and consultants involved in the projects envisage the Emirates of the future as a kind of global, multicultural crossroads, a “New York with permanent sunshine”.
In Lyons, the notion of a sister city in the desert has been welcomed by almost everyone. The Lyonnais hope that Lyons-Dubai City will bring Middle Eastern investment into their original city, as well as the new one.
Jean-Paul Lebas, the French urban designer hired to plan the Lyons-Dubai project, says his challenge is to make people feel they are in Lyons, even though the new city will not be a “cut-out copy”.
“We want to create a world that does not exist in the Emirates as they have developed until now,” he says. “We want to create an authentic urban atmosphere, with cultural sites and shops in the heart of the town, with public transport instead of private cars, with a mingling of classes in streets and back streets. There will be no direct reproduction of the Saint-Jean quarter of Lyons but we will organise the town in a European way. The bistros will have the same atmosphere as bistros in Lyons.”
Al Ghandi says that will not be a problem. “We are an international city in Dubai. You give people the freedom to do what they like to do.”
Several sites are under consideration. One possibility is that the eastern Lyons would be built in the shadow of the Burj Dubai, which will be the tallest tower in the world. Alternatively, it may be constructed beside the new Al Maktoum International Airport or close to the massive Dubailand.
Lyons is celebrated, among other things, for its rivers but officially there are no plans to do so in Lyons-Dubai City. (The Independent)
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