By Robert Such. Published in Architectural Design.

Before we tackle the story behind Jakob and MacFarlane’s installation-cum-architecture at the Centre Pompidou, Paris, let us suggest a few possible similes. References to water suspended in zero gravity, a Rowntree fruit pastel, larvae from planet Z or worms from a Dune film set all spring to mind.

So, with that out of the way, how do the architects see their work? ‘How is more important than what’ is Dominique Jakob’s response, the objects themselves being less important than the concepts and process. Yet both are undeniably and inextricably linked and the outcome is a sensual experience.

Four, five-metre high aluminium corpuscles, amorphous and hollow, house the cloakroom and toilets, kitchen, video room, and reception within the restaurant area on the Centre Pompidou’s top floor of Piano and Rogers’ monument to High Tech.

Jakob and MacFarlane’s entry, developed on Autocad, took them past the knock out round of an international competition launched by the Pompidou Centre. Their strange globular entities were still only images on a computer screen, but in the next round they found themselves up against Philippe Starck and the duo François and Lewis. All of them had to submit a model. Jakob and MacFarlane’s went on to seduce the jury.

The competition brief called for a larger space that would cater for 300 visitors, while being able to hold a reception of a thousand. Otherwise, the constraints were minimal and provided generous room for interpretation.

Their working method includes bouncing ideas across a table strewn with sketches and texts. Elements from one stage in the creative process can become meshed into a later one, or an idea that failed to work in one step can be used in another. According to MacFarlane it is a ‘slow method, discovering how to work with the programme’, but they ‘started with a hands off approach [working with the existing context rather than starting afresh] and a position of minimising the impact of the object…being there and not being there’.

Initial ideas for a series of mirrors that would reflect the exterior were discarded in favour of hanging the volumes from the ceiling. These would have had the appearance of ‘clouds passing through’, but would have masked Piano and Rogers’ blue, green and yellow plumbing.

Once brought down to the floor, hence creating buildings within a building, the emphasis remained on limited contact with the surrounding walls and floor, and air conditioning, water and electricity is piped down from above through holes in the structures.

The dictatorial modular frame of the Centre Pompidou exerted a strong motivation to work with the floor. They scored the volumes with the ubiquitous 80 cm by 80 cm grid, which links up with the borders of the aluminium floor tiles to give the effect of a deformed surface, although this almost failed to materialise, as it was extremely difficult to find the software. They admit that they came close to dropping the whole idea of computer-generating the lines. With Mechanical Desktop, the American boat-building software, and help from Alain Duvivier at Alpha Link, however, their luck changed. Even though the pair acknowledge that if CATIA had been less costly it could well have made life simpler, the ‘DIY’ approach — the marriage of Mechanical Desktop and Autocad — proved successful. MacFarlane gestures with his hands as he describes how they ‘started with a void, followed by the suction up of the floor’, which then enabled them to calculate the position of the lines on the 4 mm thick skin and to locate any XYZ co-ordinates.

The aluminium itself, which has a milled surface — rather than facetted as was first mooted — in order to create depth by catching and reflecting light, is supported by a framework. Brightly coloured rubber linings differentiate the volumes from one another. Springs, on which the foundation beam rests, pass through the lightweight, concrete, floating floor that replaced the former rusted metal panels.

Little internal support is needed, since the skeletons are light enough to stand alone, apart from the kitchen, whose roof is some 15 metres at its broadest point. This was requested by the Costes company, which operates the restaurant, and indicates the flexibility of the architecture, in that it could be remoulded to take in volumetric alterations.

The use of folding, as seen in their 1994 T House extension, which minimised obvious boundaries and juggled with private and public space, and which Jakob and MacFarlane wanted to do in the unrealised 1996 Puzzle House, can be traced from their start up in practice in 1992 through to the present day. In addition, their interest in visual ambiguity offers different possible readings to Centre Pompidou visitors.

The latter has been explored further through a partnership with Isometric — involved as lighting consultants — iGuzzini, and Halogen to create a virtual sun. On a sunny day, shadows move slowly over Jakob and MacFarlane’s silvery landscape, but as darkness descends 320 dimmable QR 111 Halogen lamps can take over if the client wishes them to. As one group of four bulbs dims, the next group brightens, thus imitating the imperceptibly slow course of a virtual sun. It moves, however, from west to east. ‘It’s anti-nature, but it also made better sense in the way things are laid out,’ says MacFarlane.

As well as specially designed lighting, Jakob and MacFarlane worked with Cappellini to make the furniture. The injection-moulded rubber chairs are ‘super simple’ says MacFarlane and at the same height as the tables, thus providing a horizontal layer, above which the uneven surface of the aluminium rooms rises.

A striking composition has been created by the unusual juxtaposition of these forms within Piano’s High Tech environment and Jakob and MacFarlane’s work has drawn both positive and negative reactions — not unlike the Centre Pompidou did in 1977. For a national art and culture centre that is no stranger to controversy, it is par for the course. Go there and let your imagination run wild.