Familistère: A Brief History of Jean-Baptiste André Godin’s ‘Social Palace’

guise-social-palace-Familistere (Images: vincent desjardins, cc-3.0)

From its inception in 1856, the Familistère, or Social Palace, became a model of social innovation. The brainchild of French industrialist Jean-Baptiste André Godin, the 18 acre site in Guise, northern France, housed 900 workers and their families in a bid to drive reform through “social sympathy” while maximising production, supply, trade, education and recreation.


guise-social-palace-Familistere-3 (Images: vincent desjardins, cc-3.0)

The aim was simple, if radical: improve housing for workers while maximising profits through a cooperative society ultimately owned by its employees. To that end, the Familistère was established around a foundry and factory for the manufacturing of cast iron. Meanwhile, three large, four-story buildings accommodated up to 1,200 people in a self-contained community.


guise-social-palace-Familistere-5 (Images: vincent desjardins, cc-3.0)

Galleried courtyards covered by glass roofs allowed children to play in all weather. Shops and cafes housed in a separate block catered to day-to-day needs, while goods and produce could be purchased at wholesale prices in shops staffed by workers. The Social Palace, which interestingly contained no churches, also boasted a theatre, nursery, primary school, swimming pool, bank and allotments.

guise-social-palace-Familistere-6 (Images: vincent desjardins, cc-3.0)

Godin developed the Familistère over a 20 year period following the February Revolution of 1848, and continued his quest for social reform throughout the Franco-Prussian War. But in 1918 German forces destroyed one of the school buildings, which was never reconstructed. Entering a period of decline, the Social Palace continued to operate as a cooperative until its dissolution in 1968.

guise-social-palace-Familistere-7 (Image: vincent desjardins, cc-3.0)

Eventually, as apartments were sold-off at moderate prices to private buyers and several buildings fell into abandonment, the end appeared to be nigh for the Familistère. But by 2000 the historic institution had been designated a national monument and work is now underway to restore the complex for modern use. The swimming pool is once again operational and the communal laundry has been converted into a meeting room. The drying room, meanwhile, has become an exhibition hall, telling the amazing story of the Social Palace and honouring the legacy of its visionary founder Jean-Baptiste André Godin.

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About the author: Tom


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