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Photo © Roland Halbe

Orange Cube

Jakob + MacFarlane

Lyon, France

By Jenna M. McKnight

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Since launching their eponymous Paris-based practice in 1992, Dominique Jakob and Brendan MacFarlane have produced a series of exuberant projects that wouldn’t look out of place in a sci-fi film. For their first notable commission, Restaurant Georges, they inserted four large, aluminum-clad blobs into a stripped-down space in the Pompidou Center [RECORD, September 2000, page 128]. Years later, for their design of the Docks de Paris, they wrapped tubes of bright-green-fritted glass around a warehouse-turned-fashion center on the River Seine [RECORD, June 2009, page 110]. Employing digital design tools to cleverly manipulate materials and form has become a signature for the 19-employee firm.

With the Orange Cube, Jakob + MacFarlane has shown once again that it likes to push the envelope. Completed last fall, the 67,640-square-foot building, which contains a ground-floor furniture showroom and offices above, is perched on a river’s edge in a converted industrial zone in Lyon, France. Surrounded mostly by gray, modern structures, the six-story box, with its conical gashes and pulsating orange veil, is the life of the party.

On any given day, you’ll find locals and tourists alike gathering outside the building, studying its unusual features and snapping photos.

It’s a brazen work of architecture for any city, particularly Lyon. While one of the most progressive industrial centers in the 19th century and home of the visionary urbanist Tony Garnier (1869-1948), Lyon has become fairly subdued in recent decades. The city has, however, embarked on various endeavors to boost its cosmopolitan character. In the 1990s, it opened Cité Internationale, a 37-acre mixed-use project by Renzo Piano. More recently, it set out to redevelop a run-down harbor district dominated by warehouses. It is here, in the new “Lyon Confluence” district — so named because it occupies the tip of a peninsula where the Saône and Rhône rivers meet — that the Orange Cube enlivens the landscape.

Designed to encompass 370 acres, the Confluence development will double the size of Lyon’s urban core. The original master plan, by architect François Grether and landscape designer Michel Desvigne, calls for a mix of commercial, residential, and cultural facilities designed by a roster of international architects, including a museum by Coop Himmelb(l)au. The public-private venture recalls that of HafenCity in Hamburg, where a 390-acre port area is being transformed into a hip district studded with buildings by design luminaries.

In January 2006, Jakob + MacFarlane won a competition to design the building that would become the Orange Cube. No tenants were lined up at the time; the brief simply called for an eye-catching structure on a half-acre site. “The idea was to have a competition, get iconic buildings, and, through this interesting architecture, get someone to pay for it all,” explains MacFarlane. The building’s first two floors had to accommodate cultural programming, while the upper levels would house offices. The brief also stipulated that the building envelope not fill the entire site, that it have a certain amount of negative space.

That last requirement inspired the architects to create a box pierced by three large voids oriented toward the water. “The most obvious solution, from our point of view, was to take the negative space and treat it as a cutout from the whole,” says MacFarlane. “It seemed like a good of way of making something interesting out of the project.”

At first glance, the building’s anatomy looks frenetic, but it quickly comes into focus. Supported by a poured-in-place concrete frame, the cube contains two cone-shaped voids: one drops down from the roof, the other angles up from the river, and they converge at the center of the building, creating a four-story atrium. Balconies line the roughly 43-foot-wide, west-facing opening, providing workers a peaceful retreat. This void creates “an extraordinary dialogue with the river, almost bringing it inside,” says MacFarlane. Moreover, it ushers in daylight and channels hot air to a rooftop opening, thus reducing energy costs.

A third void, located in the cube’s lower southwest corner, connects with a promenade and adjoins a neighboring structure: a salt warehouse — now a restaurant — built in the 1920s. The void’s curvature elegantly responds to the restaurant’s undulating, arched roof. “How do you pull up next to an existing condition? In this case, we decided to treat it like a child’s block. It slides alongside the old building,” says MacFarlane.

The cube’s vibrant and high-performance building envelope constitutes another remarkable feature. The architects sheathed each facade in a perforated aluminum screen whose pattern is based on the movement of water. The color refers to the site’s past (orange “safety” paint is often used in industrial zones). “Our role was to energize a very burnt-out, depressed area in the city. Color gave us a chance to do that,” says MacFarlane. Aesthetics aside, the scrim reduces heat gain, while external shades on the inner curtain wall afford additional solar protection.

Given all the razzle-dazzle on the outside, the facility’s interior shows fitting restraint. The ground-level tenant, RBC Mobilier, ended up hiring Jakob + MacFarlane to design its furniture showroom. For this loftlike space, the architects conceived a dramatic display wall with cutouts that refer to the exterior screen. They also helped design the offices on the upper levels, which feature concrete floors and contemporary furnishings. Tenants include a law office, an online media company, a lighting manufacturer, and the real estate firm Cardinal Group, which developed the building and now shares ownership with two public entities.

There’s no doubt the Orange Cube adds considerable verve to the Confluence district. Soon, it will have some friendly competition: a 107,000-square-foot headquarters for Euronews, another project in the neighborhood by Jakob + MacFarlane. As they did with the Orange Cube, the architects intend to puncture the rectilinear building with two giant holes, but this time paint it bright green. Construction is slated to begin in 2012. “The idea of perforated buildings and cones is starting to excite me quite a bit,” says MacFarlane. “This is just the beginning.”

May 2011
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