In the centre of Paris, on the banks of the Canal de l’Ourcq lies a building steeped in history. It started life as a centre for commerce, became infamous as a mecca of subversive culture, before finding new life last year. This is the story of Les Magasins généraux and the mark it has left on the industrial and artistic landscape of Paris.
Les Années Folles
In the 1920’s, Paris was booming. This period, called Les Années Folles or the "Crazy Years", saw huge economic growth and the city re-establishing itself as a capital of art, music, literature and cinema. It was during this period that Les Magasins généraux was constructed; a formidable structure in the Pantin district, complete with concrete pillars and miles of external walkways and staircases. In 1931 the building was inaugurated by The Chamber of Commerce and Industry and its cavernous insides were filled with grains, cereals, flour, paper and fabrics; either brought in to supply the growing nation or shipped out via canal out to the world beyond.
The construction of Les Magasins généraux, 1930 © DR / CCI Paris IDF
This Photo highlights the unusual features of the buidling, including the external staircases and walkways, useful when lifting goods onto and off of the canal © DR / CCI Paris IDF
An internal view of the warehouse, taken between 1950-60 © ARR / CCI Paris IDF
Post-war Paris was a city undergoing massive reconstruction, and by 1958 over 120 employees worked at the building, which was at that time solely a flour and grain warehouse. Technological advancements and a general change in the way the world works induced a gradual decline in activity, and by the turn of the century the building was eventually abandoned, and fell into disrepair.
It was at this time that Les Magasins généraux took on its second life; a cathedral of alternative art, a haven for graffiti artists around the world, with many famous pieces. Literally thousands of compositions covered both interior and exterior, making it a prominent landmark on the Parisian landscape.
For over a decade, artists added to this ever-changing gallery, but as we entered the 2010’s the region of Pantin itself was changing. A series of high profile urban regeneration projects began a cultural shift, with modern brands moving into the area.
BETC, one of France’s most well-known advertising agencies, set their sights on Les Magasins généraux, enlisting the help of architect Frédérick Jung and interior designers T&P Work Unit to help transform the complex into a cultural hub of activity. The firm had outgrown their previous headquarters (also developed by Jung) in the cities 10th Arrondisement, and were looking for a new challenge.
“We had to move out of the traditional Parisian centre to the vibrant suburbs to find the dynamic energy of a true world city, like New York, London or Shanghai," said Rémi Babinet, BETC founder and chairman. "Les Magasins généraux is the culmination of BETC's ambition and advertising's potential as the cultural leader for creative, innovative content and communications."
Les magasines generaux in 2016 - Renovation complete
The building includes various breakout areas, including these peaceful rooftop gardens.
Architecturally, the project aimed to retain the 1930’s industrial character of the building, preserving the concrete walkways and prominent exterior features. Added to this were a pair of wide patios, covered by a wooden cladding to add warmth to the project, whilst contrasting with the monotone architecture. Various roof terraces with natural grass also offer a place of solitude for workers to catch 5 minutes break.
At the heart of the project was a desire for a new way of working for BETC. The company wanted to engender greater collaboration and cross departmental cooperation, to create a sense of community within the workplace that was missing in their previous headquarters. Open plan office spaces were instigated, with various zones for all aspects of work.
A modern company and a modern design agency, both were looking to use premium quality suppliers that offered sustainable products which provided supreme control, effortless comfort and attractive aesthetics.
The HÅG Capisco was chosen as the main office chair, with 729 installed during the first phase, and an additional 165 ordered in May 2017. The perfect mix of all of their criteria made the Capisco an easy choice for the project, giving workers high levels of comfort and freedom of movement.
“Pantin is a new trendy working area in Paris, and BETC wanted to bring new ideas into the building conception and thinking how people were going to work.” Said a representative from T&P Work Unit, continuing “The HÅG Capisco pushes people to stop thinking about the “classic way of sitting”, and think a little differently, which was precisely the aims of the overall project.”
A Community Project
"Our ambition is for Les Magasins généraux to facilitate connection between varied industries to enable experimentation and serendipitous collaborations to develop and grow."
- Rémi Babinet, BETC founder and chairman
What makes this project special is the relationship with the wider community. The team worked closely with Pantin’s mayor and the local council to ensure the overall project contributed to the general community and was in line with the wider development of Greater Paris.
At the beginning of the year a programme of cultural events kick started, offering food, music and art exhibitions. The ground floor is a public space open to all, which includes a music venue restaurant and food hall.
Earlier this month the building hosted Ouishare Fest, an event for the global community and a collective of freelancers and entrepreneurs.
Life After Destruction
Not everyone was happy with the renovation project, with particular criticism directed at the loss of decades of artwork that the building contained, erasing years of the cities heritage. However the idea of preserving graffiti is almost against the point of the graffiti, as Rémi notes.
“The very essence of graffiti is that it is continually overpainted by new works. Preserving the graffs as they are, freezing them in time at an arbitrary date in the life of the building, did not really make sense. At the same time, renovating the building by destroying the thousands of graffiti that have given it the unique identity it has today was unthinkable.”
BETC came up with a solution, which not only preserved the artwork, but enabled others to continue the story; they created The Graffiti Général initiative.
Before the reconstruction took place, photographs of every single surface of the building were taken, and then mapped out into a virtual 3D world. Users can logon to the website and explore the entire complex, which contain annotations for many of the pieces, explaining who the artist was, when it was painted, and any additional info.
A view of the 5th floor via The Graffiti Généra
More artistic visitors to the virtual playground can add their own little piece of history, by accessing the second virtual world, equipped with its own graffiti tool. pick your floor, choose your spot, and get creative. Every other visitor to the Graffiti Général website will be able to observe and admire your artwork... until someone covers it with their own. On our visit to the site, we couldn't resist adding our own little piece.
We added our own piece to the collection (clearly not our graphics department)
“The Graffiti Général initiative provides a solution to this contradictory problem through an initiative that is consistent with the very spirit of graffiti art: preserving the current state and atmosphere of the building and its works on the eve of the reconstruction while still allowing it to continue to live and evolve through an unprecedented virtual experience.”
- Rémi Babinet, BETC founder and chairman