It’s safe to say: No one is going to have trouble finding the Orange Cube. Then again, it’s hard to miss a seven-story, Day-Glo block of architectural Swiss cheese that looks as if it’s been slammed by the Lord’s own shuttlecock. Designed by the Paris-based firm of Dominique Jakob and Brendan MacFarlane, the duo best known for the Centre Pompidou’s blobby rooftop restaurant, this most unconventional building sits boldly along the Quai Rambaud in the Confluence, a formerly derelict industrial zone of Lyon where the rivers Soane and Rhone meet.

The idiosyncratic project is, surprisingly, not a museum or cultural institution, but a privately financed commercial property. “I think, as a developer, it’s essential to always be visionary,” says Jean-Christophe Larose, chairman of the Cardinal Group, a part of SCI Salins. “For me the equation between developer and architect will always be win-win. The moment I saw the project, I fell in love with it.” He loved it so much, in fact, that he decided to take the top two floors as the headquarters for his company. The ground floor and mezzanine spaces are showrooms for French design retailer RBC. The remaining three floors are leased office space.

The cube’s Pantone-like color scheme and façade of punctured and laser-cut aluminum (see “Toolbox,” left) sets the building apart from its neighbors, including an old concrete salt warehouse (to which the cube is attached), known locally as the Trois Arches for its triple-arched façade.

“We were very aware of changing an area that was a depressed kind of no-man’s-land and giving it a new energy,” says MacFarlane, a native of New Zealand with architecture degrees from Harvard and SCI-Arc. As he would have it, this change would require something more than just creating an iconic building: The entire focus of the city, which is built around a peninsula formed by the Soane and Rhone, would need to shift from its traditional Italianate squares to the largely untapped resource of its waterfront. “You have a new Lyon that is looking out on the river and valorizing this new urban experience, this new urban edge,” he says.

Those views are privileged by the project’s bravura formal element, an immense conical void that punctures the façade at its northwest corner and extends up through the roof, opening the interior out toward a bend in the river. “The cone is not only important when you’re working in the building, but also when you’re in a boat or you’re walking along a promenade looking back into it,” MacFarlane says. “Really what we wanted to do was open up this experience for people living in the city of Lyon. It makes the building much more than an object.”

The purpose of the cone is not merely visual. During the summer months, the internal atrium formed by the cone’s void pulls in cool air off the river, and then funnels it into the building, a natural convection that reduces the demand for air conditioning. It also acts as a light well, allowing the architects to maximize the large floor plate of the cube, which fills the maximum zoning allowance for the site.

Transforming the cone’s digitally rendered, complex forms from virtual space, where forces of gravity do not apply, to the real world, where materials bend and warp and never seem to line up properly, proved a considerable challenge and constant learning process for the architects. “No matter how precise you are [in planning], you need to work with a surveyor numerous times throughout the construction process in order to get something perfect,” MacFarlane says.

Perfect or not, the dramatic space of the void so appealed to Larose that he initially wanted to install a glass floor in the space and place a meeting table in the center, for drama—a plan that did not sit well with the architects. “It’s the one big formal move, so if we we’re going to fill it up with program … oof,” says MacFarlane, who convinced his client to forego the idea. “If we had blocked it [the cone], it would be a completely different project.” Larose now agrees that the project is “ultimately much better” with his conference room tucked away inside.

Will the Orange Cube fulfill its makers’ grand ambitions to fundamentally change the way the Lyonnais understand their city? That remains to be seen, perhaps, and in any case is a great deal to ask of a single office building. Nevertheless, there can be no question that the architects have achieved their mission to draw attention to the waterfront.

Project Credits

Project  Le Cube Orange, Lyon, France
Client  Groupe Cardinal + SEM Lyon Confluence
Architect  Jakob + MacFarlane, Paris—Dominique Jakob, Brendan MacFarlane, Sébastien Gamelin, Gregory Bismuth
Structural Engineer  RFR Structures
Electrical Engineer  ALTO Ingénierie
Cost Planning  Bureau Michel Forgue
Façade Consultants  RFR GO+
Acoustic Consultants  AVEL Acoustique
Size  67,640 gross square feet (6,284 square meters)
Cost  $17.4 million (€12 million)

Materials and Sources

Acoustical System  Ecophon Group (Akutex glass-fiber acoustical panels)
Concrete  Poured-in-place concrete structure with prefabricated concrete floors
Exterior Wall Systems  Wicona (aluminum curtainwall with both glass and metal insulated panels); RMIG (perforated aluminum painted panels)
Flooring  Poured-in-place concrete screed
Glass  Soliver (double-glazed laminated low-E glass with solar protection)
Lighting  Philips (Celino fixtures); Switch-mode exterior LED Lighting
Renewable Energy Systems  Groundwater heat pump; high-efficiency heat-recovery air conditioning
Roofing  Bilayer elastomeric sealing with wood-slab protection (oak)
Windows, Curtainwalls, and Doors  Wicona (aluminum frame)