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22 Jun 2018

Eat Play Work: La Cantine is a new breed of workplace in the Paris suburbs

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Ad agency BETC’s giant industrial workspace on the edge of Paris has rooftop gardens where it can grow its own vegetables for workers

In Pantin, a commune in the north-eastern suburbs of Paris, there sits a robust industrial structure. Originally built in the 1930s, this former grain warehouse had been abandoned since the 1990s and over time evolved into a corpse of graffiti. Now revived, the structure is the proud home of BETC, one of Europe’s largest advertising agencies, founded in 1994 and ranked highly for its production of content in music, film, publishing and design. 

Les Magasins Généraux, translated simply as The General Store, is spread across an impressive 20,000sq m, and situated idyllically on the burgeoning cultural waterfront area of the Canal de l’Ourcq. This is a place where the countryside meets the city – perhaps a surprising location for the previously centrally based agency – yet a place with an ambitious plan to pioneer creativity and innovation in Greater Paris.

03 OnSite LaCantine 04The abandoned 1930s building attracted local graffiti artists

BETC was born in the city’s north-western suburbs and more recently had its headquarters in the 10th arrondissement, so the new location is a step further east, with plenty to offer. Eugenie Lefebvre, director of Les Magasins Généreaux, explains how the area is undergoing a huge transformation: “We really feel that it is the Greater Paris, because we feel this energy, this creativity and a spirit of entrepreneurial and innovation rising in this area.”

With BETC’s 900 co-workers housed within, Les Magasins Généraux presents a diverse mixed-use development, with public events, art exhibitions, fashion shows and 5,000sq m of workspace used for external projects. As a whole, the building merges food, technology, office and cultural space with an abundance of green design and industrial architecture. This blend is first noted as soon as you arrive; upon entering the boisterous facade, you’re welcomed at the reception and instantly swamped by the vastness of the space. Directly on the right, there’s an array of towering pillars stacked underneath a mammoth canopy that marks itself as a room for many cultural purposes. 

The ground floor is completely open to the public and features BETC’s creative event space La Grande Salle, Augustin Legrand’s affordable organic food hall Le Pantin and Les Docks de la Bellevilloise, a live music venue and restaurant. This public space serves as a hub for the neighbourhood, and is only possible due to the vast interior space. 

03 OnSite LaCantine 05The industrial structure offers greater space and light

“I would say one of the main interests in terms of architecture is this huge structure, which was used to store different cereals in the 1930s,” says the architect, Frédéric Jung of Jung Architectures, who also worked with BETC on its previous headquarters building. “Although it also becomes a problem – as you cannot organise a classic performance with a stage for the public because of the columns – but we must play with that.”

It’s a rare and spacious gem. With an unusually large floorplate, you can envision all kinds of activities taking place in its interior, despite the pillars that somewhat disrupt the room. “The building is strong in terms of spirit, atmosphere, materials, light and generosity,” Jung continues. “This kind of industrial building offers us some qualities that you cannot find in a regular working building or office – for instance, the height, with the quality of light, is very rare in urban situations. Here, everybody has the same relationship to the sky, light and corridors. Of course we all like this kind of industrial feeling, but it’s secondary. The first thing is the generosity and the qualities that allow contemporary programmes and contemporary uses, which are better hosted here than in the city centre.”

03 OnSite LaCantine 06Industrial-style work desks were designed by Sophie Breuil

So with the ground floor opened up to the public, the upper floors accommodate the employees – offering an array of workspace areas inundated with flexible desking options. You’ll see a huge collection of designer collaborations that contribute an individual typology to the building.

Paris-based design firm T&P Work UNit supervised the designers’ projects, which resulted in industrial work desks designed by Sophie Breuil for Unifor and a bookcase and library space for onsite research by Philippe Million. Alban le Henry designed custom high tables, while Adrien Rovero created a selection of tiered rows of seating in les Gradins, and vintage furniture pieces were sourced around the world by Catherine Geel and Guillaume de Casson. Jung Architectures designed the music studios, with designs that shone away from the usual cave-like basement, and come filled with natural light and windows a-plenty. 

03 OnSite LaCantine 07Unit 6 meeting space by Jean-Benoît Vétillard for T&P Work UNit

Most notable, however, is La Cantine (“the canteen”), which sees a culinary, sustainable and digital new model revolutionising the way we eat at work. To get there, you can either climb the rustic stairway or first take a trip up to the “little garden”, as Jung calls it, before entering one of the cafes and then the main restaurant. The sixth-floor rooftop gardens are designed by acclaimed landscape architect Carolina Fois. 

With nature and sustainability at the core of the renovation, it’s not surprising the garden has been kitted out with fruit, vegetables and herbs that the employees and chefs from the restaurants can forage. “The plants are for the canteen but we also regularly organise pickings – sometimes you see people with carrots or zucchinis in their bags,” says Lefebvre. “Then what’s not eaten at the canteen gets taken to the smaller cafe and the food gets reused.”

However, these small farms on the rooftops have no chance of feeding the entire building of nearly 1,000 professionals. To combat this, and to keep things in line with the most sustainable approach, the canteen sources all of its produce from six local sources that deliver daily – all are located in the Ile de France region and strive for organic, small production methods, steering clear of mass production and waste. This includes the “best bread in France”, says Jung, sourced from Meunier,  which was awarded Meilleur Ouvrier de France – a craftsmen competition held every four years. 

03 OnSite LaCantine 08The industrial scale of La Cantine caters to BETC’s 900 co-workers

This produce forms the backbone of La Cantine, which Jung describes as a fusion of “eating, meeting and working”. Head chef Delphine Suarez and director Jean-Pierre Bourhis devise a fresh and healthy menu that changes daily, and a guest chef is invited every week to bring the best of Paris’s restaurant scene to Les Magasins Généraux. 

BETC employee Anyce Nedir explains the “huge difference” since it was introduced: “We had one year without the canteen in this building. That was very difficult – we had food trucks coming in every day and I put on 2kg. It was street food, burgers and nachos everyday. So when the canteen came we had the opportunity to eat with our friends and our colleagues.” 

03 OnSite LaCantine 09Rooftop gardens are laid out beneath a concrete pergola

What’s more, the BETC digital team has devised an application to maximise the user experience of the restaurant – it’s also used by 86% of co-workers to connect, arrange meetings, book meeting rooms and effortlessly order lunch at La Cantine. 

“The main thing is the time that we gain with the application; we don’t wait, we arrive at the restaurant, sit, use the app and wait for the waiter,” Nedir says. “It’s a whole new way and I’ve never seen it done before.”

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