The Lyon king of Dubai

February 2, 2008

LYON, France

Strolling the streets of Lyon with his wife in October, Buti Saeed al-Ghandi was suddenly overcome by a double wave of love, for the city and for his spouse.

So Ghandi, a 40-year-old entrepreneur, decided to capture the magic of the moment by building a little Lyon — back home in Dubai.

“I travel all around the world, and Lyon is one of those places that make you feel different,” Ghandi said in a telephone interview. “The people do not live at 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. I also fell in love again with my wife there, and that’s also why I love Lyon.”

Certainly Lyon — with its two rivers, its Gallic-Roman ruins, its 300 Renaissance merchant houses and its gastronomic reputation — is special, even in France.

In January, Ghandi, chairman of Emirates Investment and Development, signed a memorandum of understanding with Lyon’s mayor and several local entities to embark on a grand architectural adventure for Dubai, one of the seven principalities that make up the United Arab Emirates.

The project, temporarily called Lyon-Dubai City, will include a university; small versions of Lyon’s main museums; housing, hotel and office space; cafes, restaurants, pedestrian malls, town squares, courtyards, a film center, maybe even a church, all inspired by Lyon, France’s third-largest city. As of now, little Lyon will cover 750 to 1,000 acres, more or less the size of New York’s Central Park.

The Paul Bocuse Institute is hoping to set up a branch to train chefs, along with restaurant and hotel managers. The Museum of Textiles is poised to open a silk museum and lend select treasures from its vast silk collection. Lyon’s soccer team has signed up to operate a center to train a Dubai team. Research is underway to cool outdoor spaces to make strolling bearable during dust storms and 105-degree heat.

What the project must not do, its participants insist, is clone Lyon.

“This will not be Disneyland or Las Vegas,” said Jean-Paul Lebas, the project’s planner, who helped rebuild Beirut after Lebanon’s civil war. “We have to make people feel that they are there without copying the architecture of Lyon — that is the challenge. The social will be more important than the physical. The smiles seen on the faces of others will come first.”

Mayor Gerard Collomb was more direct. “We will give Dubai the soul of Lyon,” he said.

Ghandi, who was born in Dubai and studied at George Washington University in Washington, first discovered Lyon in May when he came to close a deal with the University of Lyon to open a French-language branch in a university complex in the emirate. The university will open in September with 300 to 400 students.

It was during a second trip that the city itself became a source of inspiration that has captured his imagination.

The over-the-top rococo decor, grand scale, golden mosaics and vaulted ceilings of the 19th-century hilltop Notre-Dame de Fourviere basilica, for example, have gotten him thinking about building a similar church. It would be set next to a mosque.

“I saw certain elements in the church that related to Islam,” Ghandi said. “I felt like I was walking into a mosque.”

He and others acknowledge they are making it up as they go along. “A mosque next to a church? Why not?” asked Lebas.

Recently Lebas was in Dubai looking at three possible sites: an urban area near the Burj Dubai tower (which aims to be the tallest building in the world); a patch of desert near the planned second international airport, and Dubailand, a $10 billion complex of theme parks and entertainment areas under construction that Lebas describes as “worse than Disneyland, Disneyland 1,000-times squared.”

Then there is the issue of alcohol and pork, both forbidden under Islam. Pork-based charcuterie is a staple of Lyon’s traditional gastronomy, while wine is crucial to French dining.

Dubai, unlike many places in the Muslim Middle East, has a relatively open attitude on this, although there are restrictions during the month of Ramadan. Pork is sold in “Western oriented” markets and in special sections of butchers’ markets, and is served in certain restaurants.

As for wine? “It is completely possible to achieve refined cuisine without alcohol,” Bocuse said in an e-mail message, adding that many fine recipes “are elaborated with a base of cream and butter.”

For Ghandi, there should be no gastronomic or alcoholic censure. “It’s not an issue,” he said. “We are an international city in Dubai. You give people the freedom to do what they like to do.”

Certainly the project is expected to be a windfall for Lyon. France’s $1.3 billion deal last year to rent the name of the Louvre and lend some of its works to Abu Dhabi, the capital of the emirates, is clearly on the minds of officials here.

Collomb hopes the project will work as a vehicle to attract wealthy investors from Dubai. He dreams of turning the crumbling 375,000-square-foot Hotel-Dieu, a hospital with a glorious 18th-century facade, into a luxury hotel. “Its dome is majestic,” he said. “Maybe we’ll seal a deal the next visit.”

He notes that Lyon is among the world’s top 30 convention cities, ahead of Chicago. Reader’s Digest last year named Lyon the “seventh most livable city” in the world.

Not everyone in Lyon is convinced of the wisdom of the project, though.

“It’s hard for me to imagine how you can capture the soul of the city,” said Jacques Lasfargues, an archaeologist and chief curator at the Museum of Gallic-Roman Civilization. “The color of the light here is tender, soft, sweet, like a painting of Turner. In the desert, the light is hard, brutal. The rivers — they are part of our soul. I prefer the ambience of Las Vegas. At least there’s sincerity. One knows clearly what it is.”

Collomb will not be deterred. “Dubai already has built ski slopes and islands,” he said. “And if you can do that, you can make rivers.”

<!– var s_wd=window,s_tm=new Date; if(s_code!=’ ‘) { s_code=s_dc(‘nmminneapolis’); if(s_code)document.write(s_code); } else document.write(”); // –> <!–


Comments are closed.

Looking for something?

Use the form below to search the site:

Still not finding what you're looking for? Drop a comment on a post or contact us so we can take care of it!