Creativity on Six
An 1899 department store now houses BETC Euro RSCG, a Paris advertising agency designed by Frédéric Jung
Ian Phillips -- Interior Design, 7/1/2002 12:00:00 AM
Remi Babinet isn't a big fan of conventional offices. "The general rule seems to be: If you want something functional, then it's automatically awful," the creative director and president of BETC Euro RSCG declares. "Why should people be worse off at the office than at home?" BETC may be France's most award-winning advertising agency—accounts include Evian, Air France, and Peugeot—but Babinet's previous headquarters wouldn't have won any prizes. "They were like a hospital, with a very, very long corridor," he says. They were also situated in Levallois-Perret, a Paris suburb renowned for video surveillance at every manicured intersection and an absence of cafés and shops.
The new offices could hardly be more different. For a start, they are located in the 10th arrondissement, a bustling melting pot of a district. Second, they are not only functional but also original, lighthearted, and most definitely design-led. Note the immense, 4,300-square-foot window wall, the Piero Lissoni chaises in the documentation area, and a stunning terrace with a 360-degree view. "It's like a flying carpet above the roofs of the city," says Frédéric Jung, whose Jung Architectures collaborated closely with Babinet on the job.
The 1899 building was designed by Jacques Hermant as a department store, Aux Classes Laborieuses (To the Laboring Classes). While its facade is strictly Napoléon III, the structure beneath was quite revolutionary at the time, being one of the first in France to be made of reinforced concrete. Before BETC discovered the building, it had lain derelict for over 20 years. Sheet metal covered the big bay windows, the basement had been turned into a car park, and three archways were completely mutilated. "A black hole," recalls Jung.
The architect accordingly set out to search for traces of the original building. Few were left, apart from the facade's gold-leafed glass-tile mosaic, which had been concealed under a thick layer of asphalt and paint. Still, he decided to respect Hermant's plans, unearthed in the Paris municipal archive, as much as possible. On the front of the building, Jung reconstituted several bas-reliefs. Inside, he left concrete columns exposed and reopened the former department store's central atrium to create balconies on the third and fifth floors.
His most radical change was to cut into one of the building's sidewalls. He moved it inward 20 feet and transformed it into a floor-to-ceiling window. "The project's outcome really depended on solving the problem of light," asserts Jung. Babinet points out the solution's similarity to the setup of a traditional artist's studio. "The window faces north, and the light is magnificent," he says. "I preferred everyone to share one big window, rather than having 360 separate ones."
That, of course, meant that the offices had to be open-plan—which posed a problem or two. "When I began to talk about the idea, there was a riot," says Babinet. Still, he was willing to invest the money, energy, and imagination necessary to ensure success. Special attention was paid to soundproofing "up to the standard of the French national library," he says. Ceilings were covered with acoustic panels. Parquet was laid on an inch-thick layer of rubber. Baffles were suspended in two rows above partitions. Baffle boards like those used in concert halls line the end walls. Faxes, scanners, video equipment, and other machines that emit sound are enclosed in two columns that Babinet calls "totems" on account of their notched, vertical profiles.
In the end, 70 percent of the 360 employees occupy democratized, open workstations. And everyone, including directors, has the same Jean Nouvel desk and filing cabinet, the same tilting Enzo Mari wastepaper basket, and the same Konstantin Grcic hanging lamp in lime green and white. For a touch of individuality, employees got to choose their own chairs: either one of the vintage models picked up at flea markets or a Pollock chair brought from the old premises. Jung's efforts to diversify the environment also included building cubicles and conference rooms along one wall and furnishing lounges and projection salons with Piero Lissoni sofas.
All of the credit for furniture goes to design consultants Catherine Geel and Indiana Collet-Barquero, who incorporated 20th-century classics (Arne Jacobsen's Swan chairs and Eero Saarinen tables and Tulip chairs) and contemporary pieces (Jurgen Bey's Lightshade Shade lamps). The consultants commissioned several young designers to create pieces, too. Frédéric Ruyant contributed cubicles integrating low-slung sofas in shades that range from fuchsia and raspberry to cobalt and emerald. (The principle of these spaces is communal, Babinet says: "Nobody is allowed to colonize them permanently. Every evening, you have to vacate.") Benches with images of whippets on either end are by the Radi Designers; the French collaborative also came up with the top-floor documentation area's mattresses covered in tatami-mat straw sculpted to resemble a relief map. Nearby, Grcic's turquoise system for document storage is lovingly known as the "washing machine." Erwan and Ronan Bouroullec, meanwhile, were responsible for the carpet throughout. "It's quite crazy, like something electric. It embodies the notion of circulation and connections," Babinet says. In addition, the Bouroullec brothers handled the roof terrace, now lined with the same seating found in the Jardin des Tuileries—and eventually to boast metal-framed injected-plastic cabanas as well.
What with the Radi mattresses and a rooftop beach, you might wonder whether the atmosphere isn't more conducive to R and R than work. Apparently not. "I've never understood why creative companies are structured like banks," asserts Babinet. "It's sometimes just when you're relaxing, perhaps looking out over Paris, that you hit on the idea for a new campaign. I've found some of my best in the Métro!"