On the Creative Floor: BETC Paris

The conversion of a grimy cube into an inspiring office speaks volumes about the BETC philosophy, Remi Babinet says.

On the Creative Floor: BETC Paris
On the Creative Floor: BETC Paris

In architecture, design and innovation terms, our agency got off to a fairly bad start. Initially, BETC was just another agency jumbled up in the corporate headquarters of a medium-sized communications group. But this banality was our ticket out; it forged our personality and taught us to defend ourselves. We fled the marble-halled business districts: deathly on the inside and ugly on the outside, a human desert without pedestrians or street life.

Our goal was to be in the centre of Paris, away from the staid Western suburbs where most ad agencies languish in self-imposed exile. For us, the buzz, the chemistry, the smell of cafes and fresh baguettes. For us, shops and museums. We wanted a lively neighbourhood - and low rent. We finally found what we were looking for. A ruin of a black cube with more than an acre of floor space, as dark as the inside of an oven and full of dead pigeons. Perfect.

We boiled over with ideas for the place for more than a year. Given its state, the initial brief looked optimistic: light, movement, speed. Everyone was invited to contribute, and this released a flow of requests from all corners of the agency. This helped us avoid the beginner's mistake: when you have a chance to build from scratch, the biggest risk is not the project but the "grand vision", which, in reality, is conceited, inflexible, bores everyone and has nothing to do with the realities of work and life.

We took a different path and designed a simple, practical, open workplace. Our neighbourhood is an intersection of train stations, shops and innumerable nationalities. We decided to weave together the people and talent from both inside and outside the agency. That was a decade ago. Our guardian angels were designers, architects, art directors and stylists, most of whom were unknown then: the Bouroullec brothers, Konstantin Grcic, Jurgen Bey and Jean Nouvel.

This was, perhaps, the first sign of our agency's personality, although we probably couldn't have defined it at the time. We encourage the clash of strong personalities to provoke good ideas; we don't have any preconceived ideas about solutions; we like to think while we work, and work while we think.

Ten years on, we still think our place is inspiring and practical. It has survived the shock of exploding staff numbers and endured all sorts of experiences that make it more beautiful, like the lines on a face. More than ever, we're convinced that a well-conceived office - geography, organisation, light, architecture and design - is a vital tool. It's the engine that puts the machine in motion.

What stands out at our agency is all the different spaces: patios, terraces, gangways, galleries, kitchen and meeting units. There is also the sense that each one of us can profit from a vast, powerful space. The best example is that we all work together, in an immense workshop, but instead of having 400 individual windows, each one of us profits from one giant window on the northern wall of the building that looks out on to the whole of the city.

At the beginning, there was also an open space on the fifth floor designed to embody the concept of immobility - you might call it "contemplation" or "taking a siesta". I am lucky to have my own office there.

What strikes me is the building's capacity to change. The "Passage du Desir" can be a studio one day, a concert venue the next, then a gallery, a market, a catwalk or a pond (we once flooded the whole space for a client, and everyone danced the night away in wellington boots).

Then there's the rooftop terrace that's also a cinema, a field of wheat and a bee-farm (not to mention a terrace with a spectacular view). We have played with this mixing of spaces in a building that is both highly organised and very free. Imposing spaces and timetables is not productive - most of us prefer to work when we're out walking and dream when we're behind our desks.

There is one thing that we didn't pay enough attention to: our reception. Traditionally, this is where companies splash out on marble, designer decoration and corporate status symbols. We spent approximately zero time and zero money and, to be honest, it is the stain on the tableau that I have painted so far. It is a formless, cold and draughty zone with a few sorry chairs.

If you're looking for a warmer reception, try upstairs in the agency - or across the street for a coffee at the Petit Saint Martin. That's where we all go ...

Remi Babinet is the co-founder, chairman and global creative director of BETC.