In the late 1920s, the cities of Frankfurt and Paris both hired prominent architects and engineers to build innovative railway freight stations. Both these stations remained in use for over seven decades for unloading and sorting merchandise that had been brought in by rail. Both stations were later designated as Listed Buildings, to protect them from demolition or drastic changes that would have destroyed their characteristic architecture. Both were carefully renovated and re-purposed in the early 21st century.
The one in Frankfurt was the main building of the city’s wholesale produce market. After this market was re-located to the northern edge of the city, the building was preserved, modernized, adapted and integrated into the new headquarters of the European Central Bank (ECB).
The one in Paris was known for many years as Halle Freyssinet, after the French engineer who designed it. Since 2017, after renovation and adaptation, the hall serves as the site of Station F, which describes itself as “the world’s largest start-up campus”, with “1,000 startups, 30+ programs and a full range of services”.
The engineer Eugène Freyssinet (1879 – 1962) was a pioneer in the use of pre-stressed concrete for the construction of bridges and other large structures.
Ironically, his one attempt at founding his own company was not successful. In his lifetime, there was unfortunately no such thing as a startup-incubator like the one that is now operating in his former freight station in Paris.
He did indeed have a long and distinguished career, but most of it was when he was working for other people’s companies, not his own.
The original Halle Freyssinet was essentially one big roof, covering five railway tracks, along with access roads and platforms for unloading and sorting the merchandise and repacking onto trucks for further distribution. Parts of the hall did not even have side walls, but were protected from the elements by the ingenious roof structure.
Today’s Station F was founded by the entrepreneur and investor Xavier Niel, who bought the building in 2013 and had it modernized to his specifications by the architects Wilmotte & Associés. Their task was to preserve the unique historical roof structure, remove rust and patch up parts that had become weakened in over seventy years of use. They also added new interior and side walls, mainly made of glass, along with various internal structures to enable the building’s new purpose.
Roxanne Varza, the director of Station F, has been quoted as saying that the building is as long as the Eiffel Tower lying on its side. (She was not exaggerating, since the building is 310 meters long, and the Eiffel Tower is only 300 meters tall.)
One of the many projects of Station F is their “Fighters Program”. They explain:
“Entrepreneurship is not a fair game and we are unfortunately not all equal in the ecosystem. To make it accessible to all, we have created the Fighters Program, a free one-year incubation program specially designed for entrepreneurs from underprivileged backgrounds. That may include people who grew up in French suburbs or isolated countrysides, immigrants who struggled to integrate, refugees, people with difficult personal stories, etc. But regardless of their background, they feel they have what it takes to build a startup and are already working on a project. The Fighters Program is here to give them the extra boost they need to launch their business.”
Station F is also committed to empowering women. They say: “Despite the progress made in the past years, women are still underrepresented in the tech ecosystem. At STATION F, we are proud to say that 45% of the companies are female-founded in more than five startup programs. How we do so? No quota. We’re just encouraging more women to apply to our programs.”
They also stress that more than ⅓ of the companies in their programs come from abroad “and almost 600 residents among the 3.000 people on campus daily do not even speak French. This is the reason why we have chosen English as our main language for our internal and external communications.”
My comment: as recently as the 1980s or 1990s, such extensive use of English would have been unthinkable in France.
Traditionally, finding a suitable (or even just barely tolerable) place to live in Paris has been a major problem for foreign students and other young people from abroad. Station F offers help with this: “With our co-living extension, Flatmates, we are able to facilitate the arrival of entrepreneurs from all around the world in Paris by offering them an easy-to-access and affordable place to live.” This is in a separate building within easy walking distance (ten minutes) from the Station F campus.
My photos in this post are from 2004 (Frankfurt) and 2023 (Paris).
I wrote the text in 2023.
See more posts on Station F in Paris.
See also: my post on the François-Mitterrand Library (also located in the 13th arrondissement, very close to Station F) and my post on the unmistakable new headquarters of the French newspaper Le Monde (also nearby).