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Bienvenue à Paris: How BETC is transforming a graffiti cathedral and its community

BETC's new home was designed to transform a neighbourhood and support a wider rebirth of the city. Maisie McCabe pays a visit.

  • ‘Graffiti cathedral of Paris’ before BETC’s transformation

    ‘Graffiti cathedral of Paris’ before BETC’s transformation

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It might be difficult to understand on this side of la Manche but when BETC first moved to the centre of Paris 16 years ago, it was a brave move. The French advertising and media industries have always been based in the west of the city, close to the centre of business and within easy reach of their bosses’ lavish homes. 

Fast-forward to 2016 and BETC is trying to do the same thing again – although this time its ambitions are much grander.

The building BETC has made its home after eight years of planning and renovation – Les Magasins généraux – is a former flour and grain warehouse in Pantin, a northeastern banlieue. The area has been dubbed the "Brooklyn of Paris" but, in truth, despite the arrival of the Philharmonie de Paris and the Centre National de la Danse, it is still in the early stages of regeneration. BETC founder Rémi Babinet says it’s the "beginning of the rebirth" of Paris into a new "Grand Paris".

Derelict from 2000, the two adjoining buildings that BETC now calls home became a destination for graffiti artists, earning their own moniker as the "graffiti cathedral of Paris". Babinet and a cabal of celebrated designers and architects have created a light and open environment respectful of the complex’s history, removing the roof in the central atriums to highlight the elevated passageways and building stairways around the original columns.

Mercedes Erra, fellow founder of BETC and executive president at Havas Worldwide, says the "link with nature" is very important: "We have no artificial air. We have to open the doors." When the landlord wanted to put another company into the top floor of the west building, Babinet insisted that they get rid of that floor and create a rooftop garden instead. There is also a gym and – when finished – a range of food and drink options. 

While most businesses use hot-desking as an excuse to save space (and rent), Les Magasins généraux has two desks for every person – something Babinet says he had to push Havas’ board to accept. There are light boxes for critiquing work, areas behind curtains for private study, umpteen styles of meeting space and raised bleachers for small presentations. BETC’s entire production operation will be housed together, which Babinet says will foster collaboration.

Les Magasins généraux formally opened last week with a visit from prime minister Manuel Valls, who is friends with fellow Catalonian Erra, and the chief executives of major French companies including Hermès, which has a workshop in Pantin, and Total. That evening, a mini-festival of music, drinks and street food welcomed anyone in the area. BETC also plans to open up job opportunities to people from Pantin and get involved in local schools.

"It was the very important part of the project to be open and connected to the neighbourhood," Babinet says. "We invited some famous restaurants with the idea of creating a beautiful, exciting destination for Parisian people but also a very comfortable and easy destination for the neighbourhood. To go against the gentrification, you work a lot with the right people to make something new and not to push people out."

"It’s not easy," Erra continues. "It’s not an area for rich people. But that is life. We are too concentrated in one part of Paris. It’s just ridiculous. We do advertising for everyone."

Lots of UK agencies talk about changing the world for the better. But BETC is attempting to be part of the answer to the whole suite of economic and societal challenges France is facing – not just through its work but through how and where it works too. Erra campaigns on gender and is president of the national immigration musem; Babinet is president of the cultural element of the new Grand Paris Express railway project.

Yannick Bolloré, chairman and chief executive of Havas, has no time for those who are cynical about BETC’s ability to make a difference: "If you had told me that the prime minister and the biggest CEOs in France were to come to the opening in Pantin, I would have said ‘never’. It’s already a success." 

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