Harout Mekhsian, Director, CCO Villeurbanne
An interview with Harout Mekhsian, Director, CCO Villeurbanne.

I met Harout Mekshian in the park just outside the CCO’s (Centre culturel œcuménique) current base on the project site. The Home Silk Road project is drawing to a close. CCO is preparing its future here. In a year, it will open a major new concert hall. We discussed what the CCO is, the special role it has played in the Home Silk Road project, how it works on a day-to-day basis, and the change that the project has brought for the organisation.

CCO is first and foremost a non-profit organisation, created in 1963. We are a laboratory for social and cultural innovation. As a PAVA (Point d’Appui à la Vie Associative) we support, train and host about 300 NGOs every year. We are one of the main actors in this sphere at the level of the Metropole of Lyon. 

We are very active in citizen engagement. Our independent position allows us to mediate between different actors - developers, planners, public authorities, residents, users etc. We aim to build the capacity of inhabitants to become real actors of the city.

We’re also a Fabrique de territoire (a territorial resource centre) with a FabLab and a digital workshop where students, residents and others can come along and find resources to make things or to overcome the digital divide.

As well as working with NGOs, we are becoming an actor in the Social and Solidarity Economy in a broader sense, which means working with cooperatives, mutualist groups, associations and others.

The CCO has been an important champion of the Cultural Rights paradigm, ever since the Fribourg Declaration[1]. CCO brought Patrice Meyer-Bisch[2] here to share his ideas and our former Director was very active in that movement.

We are also very involved in participatory creation processes. We always ask how we are going to question art? Who sponsors it? Who gets to decide what is legitimate and what isn’t? We’re always looking at the aesthetic and the social issues together, without compromising on one or the other. Both are absolutely at the heart of what we do.

We run a Micro-folie from Musée de la Villette, which enables digital visits of major national museums. It can be mobile or fixed. We take it to schools on a tricycle. We try to “hack” this tool as a way of initiating new activities. We create a visit and that’s the starting point for an initiative. We organise a lot of events and they’re always co-produced. We work with established and unestablished cultural actors and other players like social organisations. We have a role as cultural mediators and take cultural activities into schools and other spaces.  

To sum up, CCO comes from the popular education movement and its central objective is the emancipation of people. 


[1] Fribourg Declaration on Cultural Rights (2007), which clarifies on the basis of existing instruments the content of cultural rights within the system of human rights. See https://droitsculturels.org/observatoire/la-declaration-de-fribourg/

[2] One of the key experts in the “Fribourg Group”, which developed the Declaration

The central concern of Home Silk Road is how to transform buildings into homes. The idea for this project came through an Economic Interest Group (GIE) called La Ville Autrement, which brings together social housing and shelter organisations in the East of the agglomeration of Lyon. They want to create mixed communities. But they’ve been trying to do that for 60 years and know that social mix is complicated. Without an actor that can create links and guarantee a common imagination, people remain in silos and don’t mix. In this project, the organisations in the GIE allowed us to take on the role of creating a mix. We’re the actor that creates dialogue. Our approach to empowerment is that everyone should get to evolve in the areas where they need to. In this project we’ve built up our capacity in relation to housing and have helped build others’ capacities in dialogue, citizen participation, culture, social interest. 

CCO arrived on the site in 2018, although I personally joined the organisation more recently. So we were here from the outset.   The CCO wanted to think about its future with all the actors and the residents involved in the site. We brought this energy to the site at the very start.  20 Social and Solidarity Economy actors arrived with us.  We brought them together and created common ground through activities, design thinking, support, making available resources and spaces, the FabLab. We facilitate meetings and help understanding to take hold in a fluid way. Introducing people, crossing perspectives. For example, the CCO has helped the catering AVAA to really get on a solid footing by linking it in with customers. 

When there are events here, the audience comes to the residents’ homes. That’s a real change of position. It’s no longer “you’re a target audience, so we’ll invite you”. I think that’s a fundamental shift, which is important for the way the residents can build their future on the territory. 

This project is about homes, not just buildings or houses. It’s not top down. It’s not about “I’ve designed utopia in my office”, which we know never works. It is in the use, the practice, the living, that we can design utopias together. And it’s a work in progress! We are far from the ideal. Most of the future residents of the site are not even here yet, for example. How can we involve them? How can we build convergence?

Culture is critical to our work. I think culture is the 4th dimension of sustainable development. Culture allows us to speak about economy, ecology, and the social. People can come together around art – business leaders, residents, anyone. Feeling the same things at the same time makes it possible for them to think together.

Everything! Prior to the project, CCO’s original premises, which were rented elsewhere in Villeurbanne, were put up for sale. We realised that we were going to lose our historic home and needed to own our space to avoid that ever happening again. At the same time, we were wondering how to take CCO’s work to the next level; not just working in a neighbourhood but at the Metropolitan level.

We were lucky to meet other actors that were willing to listen to us and to work together: the project partners and also at the political level. Without political will, the rest doesn’t work. The planets aligned and we started to coordinate this energy and created this project.

CCO has gone from supporting NGOs to becoming a real incubator for SSE. We got this open playground here. We’re doubling in volume and changing our economic model with the new concert hall. This project allowed us to bring together the social and cultural, to gain new competences, to see big and grow our vision.

In one year, when the buildings will be finished, we will open with four years of experience – testing, trying, making mistakes here on the site. It has been so important: the space to make mistakes is essential for learning. Our teams have had the experience of “that doesn’t work, let’s try something else”. It’s incredible. The project has allowed an actor like us, which had never built a concert hall or an incubator, to benefit from the support of other partners. These partnerships with the different actors will continue and are already generating new projects. 

With events at the beginning, we quickly realised that we weren’t attracting a representative public. Lots of people came from the centre of Lyon. It’s an audience but we wanted the residents to be actors in this place, so we readjusted after the first season. We had the freedom to do that. We spent more time co-producing with local actors, residents. We went up a gear in that respect: initially we had focused on which artists would attract a big crowd etc, but we’re now focused much more on mixing.

For events in the park, we sold tickets at the entrance to start with. Even though it was a solidarity ticket office, where people pay what they can, we realised that it was creating a barrier. Now there is unconditional access to the park with tickets sold inside. People come in wondering what’s going on, they can ask questions, use the space as they wish. 

To begin with we thought we could build bit by bit the rules for co-production and engagement. But actually, we learned that we need to come with a solid base. The base can be changed or adapted but you need a starting point. So now we have developed basic rules for consultation. You can work from a base but not from ex nihilo.

There’s lots of technical stuff that we’ve learned. The teams are learning. Some have realised that the new scale doesn’t suit them and therefore new people have come in, which has changed us and given us new capacities.

Some actors in the project have needed time to understand that what you get out of it depends on what you put in, and that you need to be able to change your position.  Now that we see the results of 3 years of what works and what doesn’t, I think we all get it.

When it comes to the work with residents, COVID did a lot of damage. Before 2020 there was a good dynamic on the permanent workshops, for example. COVID interrupted that. Looking back, we could probably have made better use of the park to counter it rather than giving in to confinement. But we were all in an unknown situation. Now it’s hard to get it going again – we’re only really starting now. Residents are just now starting to come back en masse.

Not sure I have advice to give! I think you need to assess the challenges carefully. I think one major challenge is…how best to put it? Not to have an “us and them” attitude. Be ready to work with all types of stakeholders. CCO wants to be a societal actor – not an actor for a certain type of person. We can’t talk about social mix, living together, if we’re not willing to work with businesses, with planners, developers etc. Social organisations are sometimes too wary of other types of actors. We have strong values, but we shouldn’t pitch ourselves in opposition to others. I think there’s a real danger in saying “I work for this type of person”. It’s counterproductive and it’s condescending. Businesses, for example, are made up of workers, who are also residents. We need to mix with and understand different types of actors. It’s not easy. We have strong values, we’re strongly grounded. Some people find it hard to hear but urban authorities like the Metropole of Lyon, Villeurbanne, need to deal with complexity and balance different prerogatives including economic development on a daily basis. As a general interest actor, we need to see the whole picture that they’re confronted with. My advice is to get interested, genuinely, in other types of actors, not just the usual suspects.  It’s not easy but creativity, thinking out of the box, being able to change position, that all helps.      

About this resource

Ruth Owen, UIA Expert
Lyon Metropole, France
About UIA
Urban Innovative Actions

The Urban Innovative Actions (UIA) is a European Union initiative that provided funding to urban areas across Europe to test new and unproven solutions to urban challenges. The initiative had a total ERDF budget of €372 million for 2014-2020.

Go to profile
More content from UIA
1126 resources
See all

Similar content