The World According to Garnier

The World According to Garnier

By Cintia Colangelo

The World According to Garnier Outdoor murals represent Tony Garnier’s visionary ideal of industrial Lyon—a vision that was never realized as he had imagined it.  

The murals also represent his most famous buildings in Garnier's native Lyon: the Gerland Olympic Stadium, the Grange-Blanche Hospital and the municipal slaughterhouse. As an homage to the artist, the 24 murals that add vitality to the Tony Garnier Urban Museum are in fact located within one of his own works—Lyon’s Etats-Unis housing project (Lyon District 8). 

The estate residents themselves were the moving force behind the creation of the museum in 1985. The multifamily apartment buildings Garnier designed in the 1920s had slowly deteriorated, and the residents turned to the muralists of the CitéCréation workshop. Thus was born the idea to create this monumental artistic creation, which UNESCO recognized in 1991: murals spread across 49 buildings over 5,000 square meters. 

The trompe-l'œil painting technique was used in the murals, tricking the eye by playing with false perspectives and other optical effects. Eleven of the murals represent Garnier’s Industrial City, his master project. Six others are contemporary interpretations of his concept of the ideal city, painted by artists from Africa, Asia, Russia, the United States and Latin America.

Why did they choose this neighborhood? It was here that the architect, born of a family of silk weavers from Croix-Rousse, was partially able to give form to his great obsession with the industrial city. He dreamt it up between 1899 and 1904, while living in the Medici Villa in Florence, after having won the Prix de Rome. He disregarded the study of ancient monuments that the Academy had assigned to him in order to fully dedicate himself to designing his ideal city, in line with the Utopian visions of Charles Fourier. 

Although Garnier’s legacy is not limited to Lyon and includes works such as the Hôtel de Ville in Boulogne-Billancourt, outside of Paris, it was in his hometown that he was able to unleash all of his genius. The former mayor, Édouard Herriot, was his great champion. As a result of the friendship between them, most of Lyon’s greatest buildings are by Garnier, as reflected in four of the murals. 

Garnier always had the same concern: new forms for the social problem of housing. Light, ventilation, sanitation and green space were the fundamentals for him, as was the functional use of materials such as concrete, metal and glass. He presented solutions like separate routes for cars and pedestrians, and the use of roof terraces, glass walls and pilotis. Although initially met with resistance, these elements of urbanism were later borrowed by other masters of modernity, like Le Corbusier. 

Today, they are seen in the brushstrokes on the walls of the Etats-Unis district. Beyond being a wonderful artistic creation, this open-air gallery also possesses a social and cultural dimension, as it sparked a dialogue among residents about urban space and the revitalization of an area that had deteriorated into a charmless suburb. It is a collective creation, fruit of the marriage of committed artists and residents who came together to reinterpret the great message of Tony Garnier.