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The Orange Cube by Jakob + MacFarlane, Lyon, France

Eroded by a series of conical volumes, Jakob + MacFarlane’s citrus cube sits on the Saône waterfront. Photography by Roland Halbe

Before you even see the Orange Cube - whether in photographs or in reality, standing by the riverbank in Lyon - the name conveys the essence of the latest building designed by Dominique Jakob and Brendan MacFarlane. Like much of the architects’ spirited yet elegant work, the Orange Cube signals colour and geometry. Or, you might say, design and structure, which is generally the case with Jakob + MacFarlane’s impressive output over the last decade.

In their most memorable buildings, the intuitive and the rational coincide, reinforcing and inflecting one another, such as their project for the Docks de Paris (AR February 2009), in which a concrete warehouse on the edge of the Seine acts as a foil for a parasitical growth creeping along the riverside frontage. Made of tubular steel infilled with moiré patterned glazing, this ‘plug over’ as MacFarlane described it contains a network of staircases that convey visitors around the renovated warehouse.

The site for the Orange Cube is another waterfront locale, a long flat peninsula between the Rhône and Saône. Where these rivers join into one, Coop Himmelb(l)au is building the dramatic Musée des Confluences, evidence of the ambition driving the redevelopment of this post-industrial quarter. Jakob + MacFarlane’s building looks west from the mid-point of this fluvial peninsula, across the Saône to an almost bucolic hillside with Italianate gardens and discrete neo-classical institutions. The Orange Cube is therefore, as Roland Barthes noted apropos the Eiffel Tower, both an object to look at and an object to look from.

The architects’ brief was to accommodate rental office space in a scheme marking the transformation of the site. In response, they pushed the envelope to its allowable limits, so that the project has optimal physical presence on its former industrial site. This hypothetical or virtual Cartesian solid is then eroded by not one but three conical volumes. The primary excavation is angled inward from the corner overlooking the Saône. From the south, it appears to capture an adjacent crane like a giant Pac-Man. The mutation of this primary erosion with a conical incision through the Orange Cube’s roof creates the intriguing, crater-like void that addresses the river.

At quay level, where the interior is occupied by a stylish design store, a third conical erosion echoes the curving line of the triple-vaulted silhouette of the adjacent structure, Les Salins. Jakob + MacFarlane’s competition-winning proposal envisaged the retention of this salt warehouse, which has now been refurbished by others as an airy and inventive restaurant. The big geometric moves of the Orange Cube have thus a contextual origin in the local industry of the region. The building’s colour, according to the architects, also makes a contextual reference. The distinctive orange hue was inspired by the lead paint that is common to dockland and factory zones such as this remarkable one in Lyon.

On a spatial level, the two main erosions - one focused on the river, the other directed toward the sky - are close in spirit to Purist geometry. Yet nevertheless, the erosions deform to accommodate local conditions. They subvert the rectilinear premise of the cube, not unlike some competition proposals designed by Rem Koolhaas and the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA). In doing so, the erosions call to mind the warehouse insertions in Culver City by Eric Owen Moss, and the orthogonal Tokyo house where Kazuo Shinohara scalloped out cylindrical voids in response to high voltage lines overhead.

The Orange Cube may thus be situated within a strand of design that explores volume as a rhetorical strategy yet tweaks that geometry to opportunistic ends.

Each facade of the Orange Cube consists of a perforated aluminium skin, held forward of an inner membrane of translucent glass and solid orange panels. These inner walls extend with minimal interference to the exposed concrete ceiling in such a way that results in views of the exterior being filtered through the delicate orange scrim.

The erosions in this taut outer membrane are not circular but polygonal, and on occasion they merge, thus achieving a more nuanced - or more natural - effect than would have been created by a simplistic field of dots. The pattern is slightly denser to the south in order to facilitate shading, point out Jakob + MacFarlane. At the topmost level, complete with its penthouse pavilion, the orange skin of the building appears to dissolve or fade as it meets the sky.

Engineered in collaboration with RFR and TESS, the Orange Cube features open-plan floors with a regular grid of concrete columns. These floorplates fracture in plan, extending out into the principal void to become crescent-shaped viewing decks protected by sloping balustrades. Looking up from the quay, this aspect is dramatic. The vorticist effect is exaggerated by the striped balustrades, with aluminium panels that are slightly darker than the exterior scrim, and by glimpses of the furthest recesses of light seeping in from above. The opaque triangular panels of this erosion to the sky are frequently nibbled away by clusters of small, if not tiny apertures.

Looking out from the Orange Cube across the Saône, the feeling is like being in the stern of a most unusual ship, on the deck of a giant apparatus. Yet there is simultaneously a hectic or visceral sense of being protected by the embrace of curving walls and sheltering roof. In a world where the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao by Frank Gehry has elevated architecture to spectacular heights, the pursuit of iconicity has frequently resulted in meaningless gestures. The Orange Cube, to the contrary, can be inductive and subtle, almost organic in form. It is a pragmatic commercial building that appears, in the light of day, to be surprisingly alive.

Architect Jakob + MacFarlane, Paris
Structural engineers RFR, TESS
Electrical engineer Alto Ingenierie

Visit the AR Archive to see more of Jakob + MacFarlane’s work, including the Docks de Paris (AR 2009 February)

The Orange Cube by Jakob + MacFarlane, Lyon, France

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