Several years ago, I saw a black and white photo of a run down but enormous building in a small town called Guise, not far from St Quentin, in the Aisne department of Picardy. The building looked palatial, and also a little bit like a Victorian factory. It was the Familistère, a 19th century social housing project for workers at the Godin factory which made the famous French cast iron stoves that are still sought after to this day. I was intrigued by it, but at that time, it was closed to the public. The article I read said this place wasn’t just about housing – it was an entire city with facilities for some 2000 inhabitants. I dreamed of one day visiting…
Well, it is now open to the public following a restoration that’s taken several years. And it makes for a truly fascinating visit.
Who was Godin
The “Familistère”, a “social palace” was built to house the employees and their families of the Godin cast-iron stove factory. Godin fires are still made in the region and assembled at the Guise factory, just a few miles from Fresnoy-le-Grand where Le Creuset create their iconic cast-iron cookware.
Jean-Baptiste André Godin was born in Aisne in 1817. He was the son of a locksmith and left school at the age of 11. An ordinary beginning to his life, but his legacy is anything but ordinary.
Aged just 17 he moved near Paris, and a year later began to travel. On the road for three years, he taught himself about architecture as he went. On his journey he became acutely aware of the plight of workers and of the poor conditions they worked and lived in. In 1840 aged 23, he married and opened his own workshop. He filed his first patent that year when he designed a revolutionary iron stove known to this day as a Godin fire. It was an enormous success.
He outgrew his workshop and in 1846 moved the business to Guise, creating a foundry with about 20 employees. But that was only the start.
A few years earlier he discovered ‘Foureierism’ – the concept of social science put forward by Charles Fourier. The concept profoundly affected him. As his business grew substantially, he used some of his new found wealth to fund a project to start a colony in Texas. It was based on Fourier’s teaching – that wealth and prosperity should be shared with the labourers, social reform that didn’t please the French ruling classes. 150 colonists left France – teachers, doctors and intellectuals. There was not a single agriculturist among them to help start the new colony.
Palace for the people
The project in Texas was an abject disaster. Many of the colonists died and the colony was abandoned. Godin lost a small fortune and returned to France.
However, he didn’t give up on his dreams but instead moved them to France. In 1857 he bought a large piece of land in Guise. On it he created a workers ‘paradise’ – a residential building to house 1500 people – factory workers, employees and their families. The design of the building was based on the palace of Versailles. Residency was voluntary, and by 1870 almost 1000 people lived in the palace. There wasn’t a better, bigger apartment for the bosses or the administration workers, everyone was housed according to their needs, not their position.
On site was a laundrette, swimming pool, stores and a 600 seat theatre. It was essentially a small town within a town. And it was within easy walking distance of Godin’s now huge factory. He also built schools for workers children and even designed a wooden platform to make the pool suitable for children.
Godin called it a social palace.
Godin set a 10 hour working day when the norm at the time was 13-15 hours. And gave his workers Sunday off though there was no church in his town.
Workers generally earned around 150 francs per month and their rent was just 8-12 francs, a fraction of their wages leaving them more money to spend on other things.
He set up a workers union.The workers decided the rules in the factory via a series of committees.
The accommodation was spacious and hygienic, though it has to be said, some residents likened it to a prison.
It seemed like utopia.
But when he died in 1888 having tragically lost his only son just 15 days before, the running of the factory fell to the committees. Without his influence, it all fell apart as infighting and disagreement took over. Ultimately the experiment failed without him.
The German army occupied the site from 1914 to November 1918. They turned the theatre into a jail, the central palace became military hospital and they destroyed some of the buildings.
What can you see now?
The Utopia Project began in 2002 to restore the palace and remaining buildings. It is a triumph. You can tour some of the apartments, including Godin’s own apartment. Take a guided tour, visit the theatre (which has an active schedule of events), school and pool and discover the extraordinary story of a man of vision. There is a permanent exhibition as well as temporary exhibitions. Take a break in the lovely cafe on site (with a pretty garden terrace). And don’t miss the shop where you can buy Godin products – the famous fires, plus kitchen products including wonderfully heavy iron pans. The town of Guise is worth a detour, pretty little streets and a ruined castle you can visit.
Almost 200 years after it’s creation, the Familistère is mind boggling both in its architecture, and as a concept that was way ahead of its time.
Read more about what to see and do in Aisne in the free to read: The Good Life France Magazine
Details of the visit at: familistere.com/fr
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Janine Marsh is Author of My Good Life in France: In Pursuit of the Rural Dream, My Four Seasons in France: A Year of the Good Life and Toujours la France: Living the Dream in Rural France all available as ebook, print & audio, on Amazon everywhere & all good bookshops online. Her new book How to be French – a celebration of the French lifestyle, is out in October 2023 – a look at the French way of life.
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