I like to drop the children off at school before I go to work. At the moment our four-year-old son is finding the experience a bit difficult so he always ends up crying; it’s an emotional start to the day. Then off to work on my motorbike – much the quickest way to get around Paris and the Île-de-France. Arrive at work at around 8.45am and discuss the week ahead with my new business partner Alex – before I had been working as an independent. Then it is off to look at a 17th century chateau near Rouen. It has been bought by a Russian couple who now want to renovate it. I take the train and get picked up by a friend to take me to the chateau. Relieved I did not take the motorbike – it is pouring. I have never seen rain like it!
Meet the couple’s Russian architect and his translator and discuss the work. The chateau has some original parts such as the original kitchen, flagstones and a stone chimney that are listed or ‘classified’. The work is sure to attract the attention of the local Architecte des Bâtiments de France – the state architect who zealously guards against any damage to local heritage. Fortunately the Russians mostly just want to alter a newer extension to the chateau so I cannot see too many problems. I get regular enquires from Britons buying a tumbledown place in France who want some drawings done immediately for a renovation. But in reality and sadly, a lot of them often don’t have enough money to complete the project. And often it’s a long way away from us, too, so it is just not viable. In this case however the Russians seem to be doing things properly.
In office, working on plans for the renovation of some offices for a company in Nanterre in the Île-de-France. It is a fairly typical kind of job for us. It is 20,000 square feet office space on one floor of a seven storey building. They are refurbishing in phases. You take everything out of the floor, a raised floor, false ceiling, take out the carpets and partitions. You then need to tweak the air conditioning and the lights to suit the new layout. Then put in the partitions and new furniture. It’s not my project but Alex has asked if I could do a drawing for the new kitchenette/cafeteria. I have been to the building before so I am now able to work on the drawing in the comfort of my office. This is a rare opportunity to do what I like best – drawing and designing. It feels like a treat because so much of your time is taken up doing other things. As an architectural student at college you spent all your time doing drawings and design and that is still the bit that I enjoy the most.
A site meeting with contractors at a large renovation project I am working on in the heart of the Parisian shopping district of Madeleine and Concorde. Neighbours include big names such as Gucci and Chanel which is a motivating factor. I work a lot for American and British clients and often they have had the main design done by their own architect back home – my job is to arrange the permits, do the more detailed design and make sure that what the client wants fits with local rules and regulations. I chair a meeting in French of 15 people around the table. Though my French is good these meetings can be very intense and sometimes the subtleties of jokes can get lost in translation – there are only so many times you can ask what someone meant without killing the joke! Often there is a problem to solve. Recently a contractor who was supposed to be relaying some old parquet simply walked out. It was a difficult job, harder than laying new parquet flooring, and with hindsight I am not sure he was up to it. Fortunately a joiner already working on site agrees to do the work and I can now see he has done a better job that the other man.
We are thinking of moving offices and I need to see the estate agent about renting a place. The first thing he asks is ‘is your dossier ready?’ I am now prepared for the peculiar demands of estate agents and the mountains of paperwork they require before you even start looking for a new place. They want my company’s statutes, bank details, previous accounts and anything else you might need to convince a landlord to take you on. I’m not sure how many times I have had to initial every page of our company statutes to send off to the accountants or the insurers the Mutuelle Architectes Francais (MAF). One day I was in a queue behind a Frenchman when he was asked by an official for extra documentation. He then produced a huge file of papers he had brought with him. I realised this was a great idea and so I now I do the same. I take a file with me whenever I need to show paperwork, including our family ‘livret’, marriage certificates (in French and English), the absolutely vital EDF bill – what can you do without it? – and even a copy of my 50m swimming certificate from when I was eight! I also use our own official stamp or ‘tampon’. You have to learn how to fit in with local ways.
Later I sit down with our British clients and some French representatives to discuss the progress of the shop site. It can be a challenge – the English speak little French and the French speak only a little more English. So when I am talking in French the English contingent get impatient and start talking among themselves- and vice versa. Soon you have about six conversations going on! The worst situation however is when the two groups THINK they understand the others. I once had both sides insisting they understood each other’s position perfectly and that it was only me who was holding things up – even though I knew they had completely misunderstood what the other side was asking for!
Today is an office day, though I have a meeting with some British clients later. By the time they arrive it is 11am and they are keen to get on with the meeting and just ask for some sandwiches to be brought in for lunch. The French people in the meeting however are appalled at the idea! I explain to the British that they are in Paris and so they really ought to go out for something to eat….. It is another example of the difference in culture between the two countries. However as I am fond of saying, it is very different in France – but also exactly the same. By this I mean that the end result is the same – the building gets built – even if you have to take a very different route to get there. I liken it to walking along a beach. In Britain the beach would be marked with big boulders that you would have to make your way around until you get to your destination. This means that you can take a variety of different routes to get there. On the French beach however there are no boulders but instead a brick wall across it. You are not going anywhere until you find the door through this wall. But once you do you will find a neat path that takes you straight to your destination.
It’s getting late and I try to make it home for a family dinner by 7pm. If I do have to take work home I make sure it is something that I enjoy – like drawing or designing. After all, those are the reasons why I love being an architect.
Reid Brewin Architectes
Telephone: +33 (0)1 43 67 92 00
Fax: +33 (0)1 43 67 92