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Innovators Interview: Brendan MacFarlane

The AR discuses coincidence, chance and mastering disorder with Brendan MacFarlane in his Paris studio. MacFarlane will join the international jury for the 2011 ar+d Awards for Emerging Architecture

AR How did you and Dominique Jakob first start working together?

Brendan MacFarlane We both went to Los Angeles, but at different times. I had been there to study at Sci-Arc, and Dominique arrived five or six years later. Strangely, we ended up with the same group of friends. We did not meet until we both settled in Paris, and were introduced by our mutual friends in LA. We set up the business - Jakob + MacFarlane - a few years after becoming life partners, and the whole thing is similar to how our work has emerged, having a lot to do with strange coincidences and chances. It’s interesting to think about coincidence and chance.

Then through a friend of Dominique, we met a family who wanted to extend their house, which became our first project, Maison T in La Garenne-Colombes. We devoted a year to it, making sketch after sketch, while teaching and working for other people. After winning a competition to build a monument for remembrance and peace at Val-de-Reuil, the client for Maison T came back to us and said they ‘would need an extension on the extension, as [their] kids are growing up’, so we designed a pop-up extension on the roof.

Interestingly, due to planning rules, we had to express the extension as a deformation of the roof, inventing what we called zinc igloos, to provide two new bedrooms. This was published, and it led to us being spotted by people at the Georges Pompidou Centre, who wanted to interview us in our office. We quickly turned our home into a studio, and they came to see our work. It was like showing them peanuts, and then they left. We heard nothing for three months, and we thought ‘what a shame’.

AR But this led to the commission to design the Georges Restaurant. During the visit did they give you any indication of what they were interviewing you for?

BM No not at all. They were simply scouting. Then they came back one day and invited us to participate in a competition. So Georges was definitely our big break. We refer to life ‘before Georges’ and life ‘after Georges’ as it was such a major turning point for us. We went from being known a tiny bit in France to being known internationally.

AR But even though they scouted you, you still had to compete for the Pompidou project?

BM Yes. There were five competitors. Three brought in as young outsiders, and two more established names, one being Philippe Starck. We went in and undermined all their expectations, completely turning the project on its head. We were a lot more radical than Starck, and in this case they chose the radical.

AR Was the brief not radical?

BM The brief was radically short. Two sentences - fantastic - which I have often said was a dream brief. All it said was, we need a restaurant, and we want a restaurant that brings us into the 21st century. That was it.

AR Was there a site for it, or did you propose the rooftop location?

BM No there was a site, the old cafeteria, so that was not a problem. The problem was that while Pompidou was organising the competition, we had no client to fund it or build it. Everyone kept their fingers crossed. We went in with a lot of naivety, which I think is always good. So chance and naivety for us were necessary to our emergence. We had to jump in. If we had weighed out all the ingredients before, nothing would have happened, or at least the outcome would have been less spicey.

AR Was the starting point for the project the grid of the raised floor?

BM Yes precisely. The grid gave us a means of avoiding the vocabulary of the building. We had been researching for a long time how to get around that obstacle, and at one point we were ready to give up the project. We were unable to get over the fact that this was a 100 per cent synthetic site.

One of the early ideas was a mirrored box, which housed all the restaurant’s mechanics. Like a box within a box, the mirror would reflect the architectural condition, allowing us to avoid all the stuff that existed and make our intervention disappear.

The other idea was the grid that allowed us to give all the elements an order. We knew that the floor was the only thing we could touch as the rest of the fabric was protected as heritage. So we imagined a gigantic floor, deformed like a carpet, under which we slid in the four pieces of programme.

We proposed an aluminium surface that would reflect light, like the mirrored box, and a deformed grid that would be part of the building’s DNA while also becoming something else. Through deformation, we proposed intervention and dialogue. This is important in terms of our emergence as young architects, as Georges brought a conceptual basis to our work. It took elements of the ‘zinc igloos’ and materialised them.

AR So it wasn’t just the notoriety or PR surrounding Georges that helped you emerge, but also the confidence it gave you to define a conceptual basis to your work?

BM Yes. It was much more important to consider conceptual territories, because these become the lifeblood of your work. Without that you are lost. PR is PR, which at some point is meaningless. Ideas really count, and while we need the PR to help expose the work, ideas are what really lead the way.

AR You said Georges was also the first time you innovated with numeric design technology.

BM Yes. It was the first time for us in the office. We could see that the volumes we had generated were extremely complicated and, having started form finding by hand, we knew that we had to move into the numeric world, so bought some computers.

AR Were you more comfortable with manual methods of form finding?

BM Initially yes, but soon I became more comfortable using software, because I was moving into the territory of deformation and complex surfaces. With what little money we had, we bought a couple of computers. We took one piece of software that led us down a bit of a dead end, but it got us far enough to get the competition done. Then we moved into the construction phase, which was a huge headache because in 1998 the software was not as advanced as it is today.

We spent a lot of time looking for software that could be used by our office and by the manufacturers who would build it, with real precision. Eventually, we found a package that was specific to the boat-building industry and we actually employed a naval architect to come into our office with the software. He produced the digital information necessary to build each of the four volumes for Georges. What was amazing was that in an incredibly short period of time we had gone from handmade models, to simple software, to marine software, to boat-building technology… and so we had cut right through a territory we had never considered before.

AR Could you talk more about your training and in particular your attitude to form finding. What was Sci-Arc researching when you were there, and who inspired you? Presumably this was in the pre-digital era?

BM Yes completely. It was pre-software, and what Sci-Arc was doing was models and more models; real models. They were quite famous for it. Robert Mangurian, Michael Rotondi, Eric Owen Moss and, of course, Thom Mayne were there; and it was being run by Ray Kappe. I came there from New Zealand via Australia. For two years, I worked at night school in one of the Sydney’s Technology Universities, while working for Harry Seidler during the day.

Then I came to America, to Sci-Arc. It was a school of disorder, and yet through that disorder it was one most exciting places on earth. They were building tons of models, and still do today. This has always been the power of LA, to build and make things. Regardless of whether it is software-based or handmade, there has always been a strong emphasis on form and sculpture, and I saw this as an amazing freedom that I could not find in my earlier experiences. For me, Sci-Arc was a great discovery.

AR Do you care what things look like when you are making forms? Do you think that parametric processes disable the architect as a decision-maker?

BM It’s weird, I jump backwards and forwards. In terms of parametrics - the process by which you type in a load of codes and watch a whole lot of parametric spaghetti come out until you say stop, or until the computer reaches a conclusion - that desire has been there for years. Whether it’s parametrics or any other art form, the ‘hands-off’ thing has always been there. Even Picasso was doing it, experimenting to the point where his work became childlike.

But architecture isn’t an art form, as it has to take on this thing called ‘function’. So you go from being interested in form, to jumping to the extreme of being functionalist. This flip-flopping to and fro develops a project, and the work evolves by jumping backwards and forwards. It’s not a button that you press. It’s a lot richer. What makes architecture so rich is that it either works or it doesn’t. It has a programme to fulfil, as well as being formal, and when these things come together it should lead to an extraordinary form of art.

Take the Orange Cube in Lyon (AR May 2011), for example. On one level, it is very simple; it is a box with a series of levels for offices and two lower levels for selling stuff. There is nothing extraordinary in that. But instead of putting a hole through the building vertically, which would have been more functional, we were told that we could not make a void on the lower floors. So then we came up with the L-shaped void and began a process of giving it form.

As it evolved, we realised that the void was the architecture, where we created a threshold between the interior, the balcony and the river. This to me is an example of the coming together of something that works - no one can deny the functionality of the Orange Cube - and something that goes beyond the brief. No one has really celebrated the River in Lyon, and we think we have changed this situation.

AR This leads on to the idea of context in your work, as you have described both the use of the grid and colour as being contextual anchors. Can you elaborate on this?

BM The grid or the matrix is always an important way of us getting into our sites. With the Docks de Paris (AR February 2009), we had the choice of demolishing it or keeping it. Run-down for years, Parisians hated it. But we could see that it has an extraordinary structure. Its skeleton was very beautiful. Built in 1907, it was one of the earliest reinforced concrete buildings in the world. Le Corbusier wrote about it, before creating his Domino House of c.1915. So with this we had reason to keep it as a prototype, and we wanted to create a new prototype for the 21st century that still belonged to the past.

In Georges, you see the start of ideas that evolve with the Docks de Paris, where we took the notion of Archigram’s plug-in and created a plug-over. We took the matrix and grid of the existing building and allowed the green piece to distort it. We took the 10m bay and overlaid it with a 2.5m geometry. Through this we shifted the previous transverse axis of the transit shed on to a longitudinal axis, allowing people to walk the length of the building on an axis with the dockside.

This concept also influenced the choice of colour, which not only responds to the greens found in the water, but also to the notion that this site was once planned to be a linear park. We often use colour to amplify site conditions, for example in Lyon, where the Orange Cube amplifies aspects of the site’s industrial heritage. In a more subtle way, at the School of Art at Pau, the white rooftop addition chimes with the nearby snow-capped mountains of the Pyrenees, to help bring something of the lightness of a cloud.

AR At the beginning of our conversation you mentioned that chance and naivety were key characteristics of emerging practice. Before you come to London to judge our ar+d Awards for Emerging Architecture, do you have any explicit advice for today’s generation of emerging architects?

BM Architecture is interesting, but let’s be frank, it takes a hell of a lot of hard work. It would be absurd to say that a career in architecture was just about managing a series of chance events. That’s wrong. It is an amazingly long slog and a lot of hard work.
The other thing is the importance of experimentation. Experimentation becomes the motor for your work, and this does not mean you have to use masses of technology or buy the best software. This is a major message. Software is sometimes the stuff slowing us down.

What is key is our ability to synthesise ideas, and you can do that with paper and cardboard. Experimentation is not about what you work with; it is about how you work and how you think. That is universal, meaning it runs through time, and it will not change. You have to develop the ability to experiment.

Experimentation also keeps you positive about the future. If you are creating, it is that which gives you energy and power to go on. It is about ideas. Don’t let anyone tell you that ideas are dead. If our office did not believe in ideas, we would not have done what we have and would not be able to do what we hope to do in the future.

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