11 February 2014

As fake as houses

Back in October, I was fascinated to read about three imaginary homes in a post on our sister blog, Invisible Paris.

Never having considered the possibility of buildings being anything other than what they appeared to be, I found the idea of pretend houses both amusing and intriguing. 

Could there, I wondered, also be artificial abodes in Lyon?

To my immense surprise, I discovered that there were at least five of them in my adopted home town on the peninsula between the Rivers Rhône and Saône. Two of these are in the 4th arrondissement, the other three in the 1st.

19 Rue Vaucanson
The first fake house that I went to inspect is at 19 Rue Vaucanson next to a steep set of steps in the hilly Croix-Rousse district in the 1er. At first sight - especially from the bottom of the steps - this looks like a somewhat odd, cream-coloured lighthouse or clock tower with rows of tall windows with slats resembling Venetian blinds on its three exposed sides. 

On closer inspection, it turns out that there are actually two attached, flat-rooved, rectangular buildings of different heights at this address, the taller of which rising 25 metres up. The base on which these two buildings stand has bathroom-type milky-glass in its much smaller windows.

Halfway up the steps I found the first clue that this was no ordinary house: a low railing and a gate behind which there is a metal door marked "poste de transformation - haute tension" (high-voltage transformer substation). 

An interesting side door
Going round to the front door, I discovered that this too was metal and completely devoid of a letterbox or a bell, its door handle the kind of pull-out, twisty thing normally seen on lockers or filing cabinets. Interestingly enough, a pulley could be seen through an opening on the first floor, just above the main door. 

Yet nowhere was there any indication of who the owner or occupier might be - if indeed there was one.

The next false house is only a few streets away, at 24bis Rue de Crimée. Just like the one in Rue Vaucanson, it is a tall structure 25 metres high comprising two adjoining, asymmetrical rectangular buildings with rows of large windows. It too has a bland, grey, metal door, though its pulley is on the outside.

Again there is neither a doorbell nor a letterbox.

3 Rue Anselme
Another such Fifties-style tiered building can be found at 3 Rue Anselme in the 4th arrondissement, on the corner of a busy street with trolley-buses coming past. Architecturally identical to all but one of the other fake houses in Lyon in terms of design, structure and form, it has a large double-door at the front and is attached to two neighbouring buildings. 
21 Rue Chazière:
same, same, but different

It was also the first which gave me any idea of its true purpose, though I'll come back to that in a moment.

Just 300 metres further on lies the most westerly of the Lyon's fake houses, at 21 Rue Chazière, also in the 4e. Slightly smaller than the rest, at 22 metres, it also differs from all the other fake houses in Lyon in that, rather than being in a built-up street, it sits in a large field behind high iron railings on one side and stone walls on the others.

The last of the five fake buildings (the image at the top of this post), at number 86 on the extremely busy Boulevard de la Croix Rousse, looks nothing like the others - not only architecturally. This is a three-storey building from around the 1930s-1940s with not just one real front door, but three. It also has three steps leading up to the main, central door. What's more, the windows in the first floor are shaded by genuine Venetian blinds.

86 Boulevard de la Croix Rousse
seen from above on Google Earth.
Note the markings on the pavement.
To my great surprise, workmen had left one of the front doors open, enabling me to take pictures from within and walk down and all the way up the stairs inside.

But one aspect of the house is extremely odd: bollards encircle the entire area of pavement in front of the building from the house to the road. Two of them are literally in the road, like misplaced chasse-roues, one at either end of the house. The only opening between these bollards is closed off by a chain.

So what then was the dead give-away that I found at the Rue Anselme building? A sign on the gate reads "Tunnel de la Croix Rousse, Station 2".

For in contrast to their counterfeit counterparts in our nation's capital, the five fake buildings in Lyon are "usines de ventilation" (ventilation systems) not for the métro but for a tunnel that cuts right across the Presqu'île from Rhône to Saône.

If you look at a map of Lyon (see below), you can clearly see that the five fake houses all lie equidistant from one another directly above the 1.8-kilometre Tunnel de la Croix Rousse, which funnels traffic from the A6 and A7 motorways under the peninsula from just past the Pont de Lattre de Tassigny, spanning the Rhône, to just before the Pont Georges Clemenceau, one of the bridges over the River Saône. 

All lined up perfectly along the tunnel

If we now view the houses from above using Google Earth, as in the image above, we can clearly see that each house has a dark circle and what appears to be a spider's web in place of a roof (the only exception being the building on Boulevard de la Croix Rousse, where this is set slightly further back).

19 Rue Vaucanson
being built in the 1940s.
This is actually the cover of the exhaust shaft in the taller of the two blocks. Fresh air is drawn in through the slats in the windows of the smaller, adjacent building. The architecturally identical windows in the building housing the exhaust shaft appear to be merely decorative. 

Both of the shafts are about 4 metres in diameter and between 60 and 75 metres deep, dug between 1949 and 1952, when the Croix Rousse tunnel was built.

Cross-sectional plan of the
usines de ventilation
Only one of the buildings, that on Boulevard de la Croix Rousse, is a real house. In fact there are still offices on the first floor - hence the real doors and real windows. In this case, the ventilation shafts are located at the back of the building, directly behind the lift shaft that is still in use today.

All five usines de ventilation were renovated from late November 2012 onwards, when, as part of the drilling of a second, pedestrian-, cyclists- and bus-only passageway under Croix-Rousse, the original tunnel was given a thorough facelift and all asbestos was removed from the inside of the tunnel. 

A "brokk" dismantling a ventilation shaft
from within the façade prior to its replacement
As part of this renovation, all five of the 60-year-old usines de ventilation were completely dismantled on the inside of the buildings, the shafts rebuilt from scratch, new electrical equipment fitted and the façades given a new lick of paint. 

The work was completed in late 2013 in time for the opening of the new "tube modes doux" (pedestrian tunnel).

Locate Lyon's fake buildings on Google Maps

Do you know of any other fake houses in Lyon? If so, I'd love to hear about them!

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