Montreuil, FR

OVERCODE is an architecture and urbanism practice founded in 2011 by Claire Garcia Barriet and Alejandro Elias Garcia Marta. Their work is shaped by different interests, cultures and experiences that is then reflected in architectural, urban or art projects, while constantly developing a particular synergy that tries to investigate meaningful questions. During our interview with the founders, they delved into the intricate details of the studio's early days, discussing how they tackled various projects and established themselves as an experimental and multidisciplinary practice, while sharing insights into their future plans and upcoming work.

Starting naively, building sustainably

C.G.B: When we started thinking about having our own office, we were still working for two different practices in Paris. We began quite naively without any competition. In fact, we simply wanted to stop working for others.

A.G.M: First it was Claire who quit her job and started the company, and I joined her later. By 2012, we were working full time for our company. In the beginning, it was quite difficult. We didn't get the commissions we hoped for, so we tried to expand our scope by doing a lot of different things, and we decided to apply for a space in an incubator for companies based in Montreuil, France; a place that helps small and new companies take their first steps and develop their activities. We knew how to set up a project or develop an idea, but we didn’t have the knowledge or experience in running a company. It was quite different from how we imagined.

C.G.B: The initial dream was to build a vision for an architecture where, at least in the beginning, we wanted to forget about the management and administrative aspects. This is rather something that we learned through working in the incubator in which there were no architects or designers at all! Without this experience in the Incubator, today we would not have become the architecture practice we are. We continued in the Incubator for four years and moved out when we had enough public commissions to continue along our independent path.

A.G.M: Suddenly it became clear that we had to develop our own identity as a practice, our own brand and even how to present ourselves. As a consequence of that, we had to learn how to deal with clients before being able to pursue our main ambition, i.e., to design public buildings. It was thanks to the Incubator that we were able to start our first collaboration. The Incubator manager proposed that we work on the renovation of another building owned by the same institution and its transformation into a workshop for ceramics and crafts. That was one of our first projects that touched on two themes that are still present in our daily practice: the public domain on the one hand, and the renovation of buildings on the other. That was crucial. Since then, we have been able to respond to open calls in the public sector.


Finding a pragmatic balance 

C.G.B: During the first year, it was just the two of us, until we also had a kid. In order to dedicate enough time for our personal lives, we had to be well organised and very pragmatic with the limited time we had. This is something we both learned while working in the Netherlands where they are quite strictly organised. From that experience, we learned how to be productive during the day and to complement the professional life with the private one.

A.G.M: We learned how to plan our movements in advance and implement them efficiently during the week in order to have the weekend to ourselves. We feel the same way when working with our employees. We don't want them to work extra hours on weekends or in the office. We decided to divide our tasks according to our strengths and weaknesses. So Claire is usually focusing on the administrative part and preparing applications, while I spend more time at the construction site. We are a small team. We recently hired a new member, and sometimes we work with external collaborators, for a total of five people involved in the practice. We always try to maintain an open and collaborative process. We strive to exercise a horizontal structure even if some of the main decisions are taken by us.


A drive for public commissions

C.G.B: In France, there are a lot of calls to design public buildings, but you have to first build your own portfolio with demonstrable experience in certain types of buildings. After many years working in France, we are focusing mainly on the French context because now we have the portfolio and the experience to apply to public commissions. Although we might have a great opportunity to design public buildings, it takes a lot of work to prepare the applications, and many offices are involved in this process. Sometimes even 20 applications are presented in a month.

A.G.M: In the beginning, we searched for local clients for whom to develop projects. Gradually the projects’ scales increased. We made a choice to develop as a local office, mainly in the North and West regions of the country. Sometimes it is a combination of fortune and strategy to emerge especially at the beginning and in competitions. One mistake we made was to apply to large scale projects that were too big to handle. We took a step back to make something that is nice that deals with budget and constraints, and clients. In this way, you gain a bit of trust to make bigger stuff then.

C.G.B: We worked a lot with town halls, where there is more about what you can offer. The first commission we had was a youth center in Granville, Normandy, near my home town. I think that was the right opportunity because you have a direct connection with people and institutions that know who you are and what you can do. 


Commissions and clients. France, Europe and beyond

C.G.B: At first, we only had private clients. We did not have a lot of connections in the city. The first project was a staircase for a flat in Paris. But since then we approached a group of entrepreneurs that would gather every week and shared contacts and references between companies. Through this we got commissions for apartments, and interiors. Thanks to this, we built our portfolio, and it eventually became easy to find us online. Today, presenting projects through public tenders and applications perhaps represents our main approach to get commissions. However, we are asking ourselves many questions as it is a bit of a gamble.

A.G.M: We are looking at developing across Europe. The public commission will remain in France, but we feel the retreat of governments for public responsibility in favour of a privatisation of everything. How do we position ourselves in this kind of a market? We still want to design public buildings but parallelly are looking for private clients. We are also thinking about how to expand outside France: we have contacts in the Netherlands where we studied, and Venezuela, where at the moment we are developing some pro bono collaborations in Maracaibo.


A bottom-up approach

A.G.M: We have a few ongoing projects at the moment. One that we started last year is a Community Centre for a small neighbourhood near Orleans (a town in middle of France). It is in its final stages, and should be completed towards the end of 2023. The project is a sort of small house. One of the most interesting aspects of the project is that we worked through a bottom-up approach through the involvement of the inhabitants of the area during each phase of the project. Another ongoing project is a little bio agricultural farm. It is an industrial kind of project, and this is the first time we work with this kind of typology, which is very interesting. Working in a different environment, in contact with nature, and we are learning about crops, and how to grow them.

C.G.B: This project is also a public building. The town hall owns the lands that it rents to a group of farmers to grow vegetables. Part of this will be sold, and another part will be used for a catering institute. It’s a circular project. In this case, the Town Hall contacted us, but later we dealt with the farmers directly. This interest in a participatory approach started when we developed the ceramics workshop. Each time we would go to visit the users of the project, it was vital for us to listen to what they did because this reflects on the way the space would be experienced compared to how it was designed.

01. Overcode   portrait 005 copyright David FoesselPhoto by David Foessel02. ongoing OVERCODE community center view 02 render credit artificielvRender by Artificiel 03. ongoing OVERCODE ferme BIO photo overcodePhoto courtesy of OVERCODE04. Overcode Amiens  013 copyright David FoesselPhoto by David Foessel05. Overcode Pantin 017 copyright David FoesselPhoto by David Foessel06. Overcode Villejuif 014 copyright David FoesselPhoto by David Foessel

a project powered by Itinerant Office

subscribe to our newsletter

follow us