Design Plus: Creative Surburbia

Rarely has an advertising agency generated so much publicity through an office move, but it has to be said that BETC’s conversion of Les Magasins Généraux – a graffiti-covered yet alluring warehouse complex in the gritty Paris suburb of Pantin – was both audacious and visionary.

by Mark Tungate , MAYDREAM

BETC co-founder and creative director Rémi Babinet admits that he took one look at the building and knew he wanted to move the agency there. “Unfortunately, it got more complicated after that,” he chuckles. Eight years later, his dream has been realised.

The layer of graffiti, which has been compared to tattooed skin, is no more – although its memory was sensitively preserved in a coffee table book. Inside and out, the building exudes a blend of industrial solidity and digital-era futurism. Towering concrete pillars, courtyards and patios criss-crossed by soaring gantries, exposed pipes and air conditioning ducts: it’s nothing if not cinematic.

“Look,” says architect Frédéric Jung, pointing out the stencilled words MAGASIN EST on a wall, “that’s the original typeface from the 1930s. We are always striving for authenticity.”

BETC is essentially a tenant: the agency, Jung and interior architects T&P Work UNit worked closely with developer Nexity. “I think sometimes we drove them a little crazy with our ideas,” admits Mercedes Erra, the E of BETC, indicating the rooftop garden and huge canteen, which will feel more like a hip restaurant.

Perhaps even more interesting than the building itself is the agency’s commitment to its new neighbourhood. Creative organisations have been based in suburbs before – a handful of other agencies are headquartered on the fringes of Paris – but they rarely throw open their doors to the public. BETC’s reception area doubles as a café, while the ground floor will soon be home to a brasserie and shops.

BETC has embraced the idea that Pantin could become the Brooklyn of Paris, thanks to an influx of other creative types alongside the agency’s employees. But Pantin is not alone. Long associated with desolate tower blocks and disenfranchised youth, the banlieus of Paris are showing new sparks of life. This is partly, of course, because housing prices in the city have become inaccessible to younger workers.

In Clichy, for instance (located just across the périphérique, the ring road that forms the frontier of Paris) a shimmering tower designed by Renzo Piano Building Workshop will open as the new Palais de Justice, the judicial centre of Paris, in 2017. It will bring 8,000 employees into the area. Clichy is already undergoing change, with new parks and an influx of bourgeois-bohemian families.

The suburbs have also attracted the attention of clubbers and music fans, who find that noise restrictions, entry prices and a more sedate crowd have dulled the capital’s nightlife. This summer The New York Times reported on dance parties and clubs in suburbs like Montreuil, St. Denis and Nanterre.

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Perhaps surprisingly, suburbs have a history of engendering creativity. Their uncertain location – neither countryside nor city – can feed a yearning that drives creative expression. One famous British rock song from the 1980s, “Sounds of the Suburbs” by The Members, lent its name to a musical movement.

More recently, the South London district of Brixton – hardly a suburb, but area associated in the past with racial tension – has developed into one of the city’s creative hubs, with art galleries, cafés and independent stores gathered around Brixton Village Market. It even has its own currency, the Brixton Pound.

In Australia, an organisation called Creative Suburbs is dedicated to working with local communities and sponsors to improve suburban living through art projects and leisure spaces. 

As cities across the planet become more densely populated, and housing in prestigious central districts grows more expensive, suburbs could have a vibrant future ahead of them. BETC – as befits a creative agency – is one step ahead of the trend