jeff koons play doh

Paris’s Station F and the Malling of Start Up Culture

The brief had been minimal. “Transform the freight train terminal into an environment for 1,000 startups.” That was it. The client had given the architect carte blanche — from the master plan down to the last detail.

 

Making it happen had been a colossal undertaking.

 

Meanwhile, I had been hired by the architect to write a book about the epic overhaul. Lo and behold, in the process, I had fallen in love with the place. I was eager to see it all completed. I suspected the result would be awesome.

 

The day came when, at long last, I was able to walk into the building without first changing into work boots and donning a hard hat. I had no idea what the interior would look like without the cranes, the scaffoldings, the earthmovers, and the forklift trucks.

 

It was a deflating experience.  

 

Buffed up and spiffy, the place had about as much aura as a shopping mall. It had become an empty shell, a gutted hull, a kaleidoscopic tunnel of reflective surfaces repeated indefinitely.

 

I live in Paris, where spectacular indoors perspectives are the norm—the great gallery of the Louvre and the interior of the Pantheon church, among them. Parisians are pretty blasé when it comes to historical restorations. Still, the opening of Station F made news. It brought together the legacy of the past and the promises of the future.

 

Built 90 years ago, the original structure had been a structural tour de force, and as such it was protected under French law as a historical monument. It was the work of French engineer Eugène Freyssinet, a man for whom frugality and thrift were cardinal virtues. His obsession with resource management was the reason he became interested in reinforced concrete, a building material a lot less expensive than masonry or steel. With it, he had built bridges and hangars of surprising elegance. For the Paris train terminal, he had gone one step further and invented pre-constrained concrete, a technique that allowed him to drastically reduce the thickness of the vaulted ceilings, a substantial saving considering that the length of the sky-lighted concourse was equal to the height of the Eiffel Tower.

 

Before the renovation of the Freyssinet terminal, only a handful of people in Paris knew about the existence of this engineering masterpiece tucked away behind abandoned railroad tracks in the eastern corner of the Left Bank. In 2013, French telecom billionaire Xavier Niel bought the derelict structure for $80 million, with the intention of turning it into “the world’s biggest startup campus offering a whole entrepreneurial ecosystem under one roof.” Inaugurated last June by Emmanuel Macron, the president of France, Station F received rave reviews.

 

An aspirational project, it was supposed to surpass what Silicon Valley had to offer to creative entrepreneurs in terms of amenities. For journalists, praising the restoration was an apparent no-brainer. They all used the same press release, and extolled the same facts: the incubator could accommodate more than 1,000 startups—its 3,000 desks accessible around the clock, every day of the week. Start-ups from all over the world had signed up—with Facebook and Microsoft renting blocks of dedicated workstations. No one expressed reservations regarding the interior design. Station F had become a jingoistic symbol, the unassailable proof that “entrepreneur” is indeed a French word.

 

The renovation had been handled by Wilmotte & Associates (W&A), an important French architectural firm specializing in historical preservations. Hiring this particular master builder had been a conservative choice on the part of Niel. Jean-Michel Wilmotte is often described as the default architect for prestigious assignments, someone who doesn’t rock the boat, delivers projects in time, and keeps his clients happy.

 

I should have known.

 

Even though the incubator had been hyped as “a hub of creativity,” Wilmotte had downplayed the cool factor. His master plan and interior design were consensual. His scheme didn’t include radical innovations; neither did he adopt the trite motifs usually associated with creative workplaces: unfinished surfaces, sinuous lines, nooks and crannies, murals, aquariums, jungle gyms, meditation rooms, or basketball courts. His only concession to current interior design tropes for trendy workspaces was the presence of pool and foosball tables in lounges.

 

Under sky-lighted concrete vaults, the central concourse soars, perfectly symmetrical and uninterrupted—its reach extending into tracks of reverberated glares. Office spaces are located on the aisles, on longitudinal mezzanines that recede out of sight. On either side, on three levels, cantilevered containers, their extremities glassed-in, house small conference rooms. Oversized neon numerals, in a tasteful stencil font, are the only gallant attempt to jazz up the place.

 

 

Now completely sealed and weatherproofed, the former indoors-outdoors freight train terminal is a climate-controlled environment—not an “ecosystem” by any stretch of the imagination.  Its raw concrete surfaces have been burnished to a shine, its rusty casements replaced, and any traces of corrosion, rot, or water damage cosmetically removed.  

 

Full disclosure: My W&A writing project had derailed. My approach was deemed “too American.”  I was fired. Part of the misunderstanding was my fault. I had assumed that I was writing for an audience of creative types— young entrepreneurs out to change the world. It turned out I wasn’t.  

 

Creativity is a major issue in the entrepreneurial world. You and I might think that creativity is the act of turning one’s imagination into action; that it’s an ability to perceive the world in new ways; that it’s about making unexpected connections between unrelated phenomena. I found out—too late—that, in the jargon of startups, creativity is something quite different, and a lot more specific. To a start-upper, creativity means “an ability to come up with clever ways to generate a steady revenue stream.”

 

Creativity is the ability to create wealth.  

 

Granted, some entrepreneurs are not “creative” in that sense. Social entrepreneurs, for example, set up enterprises that aim to solve actual problems and change the world for the better. But, as it happens, Station F only supports “creative” entrepreneurs, people who do not try to solve existing problems but are busy creating potential new ones.

 

The goal of the young enterprises that take residence at Station F is to develop apps, platforms or digital tools that propose novel products and services. In the preliminary phase—the startup phase—they must come up with market-oriented schemes in the form of questions. It could be as trivial as where can men order grooming products just for them, or as sensitive as how to help patients stick to their high cost prescription therapies. Developing the right elevator pitch will get you an interview with a venture capitalist.

 

 

Meanwhile, Station F is a “creative” enterprise as well. Only as such does it begin to make sense. Its creativity is covert, though, not overt. It is pitched to attract venture capitalists—not start-uppers who only pay a minimal fee to rent a desk and benefit from the professional expertise available on the premises. Neither will the real money be coming from the relatively small equity stake Niel will eventually collect from the few stellar startups that are likely to turn up a profit or be acquired. His business model is a lot more ambitious. Its inspiration is the contemporary art market.

 

The tip-off is the presence of a monumental Jeff Koons Play-Doh sculpture prominently displayed in the middle of Station F’s entrance hall. There is something obscene about it. The huge pile of lumpy, crayon-colored, modeling clay gives the finger to the notion that creativity involves the production of something new and valuable.

 

But more alarming is the way the sculpture condones Koons’ relationship to the art market. The prominent place it occupies—smack in the center of the space, not on the side—leaves no doubt as for the reason why Neil chose it as an emblem. A huge dollar sign would have been less radical.

 

Venture capitalists, like big-ticket art buyers, stake their reputation on valuing invaluable objects, whether they are unicorns—startups worth a billion dollars or more—or works of art. In both instances, the perceived value is what it’s really all about. Likewise, the concern here is the perceived value of Station F, not as a cool incubator for tech innovations, but as a potential real estate acquisition, as an iconic property, as a prestigious example of 21st century historic preservation.

 

Niel is marketing Station F as the next new thing: the ultimate conceptual work of art for the entrepreneurial age.

 

A recent visit to Station F confirmed my intuition. The cavernous lobby was deserted. Entering required a security code that could only be issued by someone already inside the building. As for the inner sanctum, the startup area reserved for badge-carrying residents, it seemed uninhabited as well. A handful of people were milling around, vacant expressions on their faces.

 

A third of the building, a vast hipster restaurant/food court, still under construction, was the only area where something was going on. I peeked behind the fences to catch a glimpse of the work in progress.  A wave of nostalgia washed over me. The Freyssinet structure was still visible, rising above the clutter of jackhammers, compressors, and cherry pickers. A thin layer of dust covered its every curves and volumes with a velvety finish. It looked so tangible, so palpable, so “concrete” indeed.

 

Soon, this last evidence that there was a there there will disappear under a varnish of creativity.

 

Featured image: Jeff Koons Play Doh pile, in the main hall of Station F, in Paris. All photos by the author.

 

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