08 August 2010

Menier Chocolate Paris 1872-4: modern architecture

The Menier Chocolate Co. was a chocolate-making business, founded in 1816 as a pharmaceutical manufacturer in Paris. This sounds strange, unless we know that chocolate was one of the many products produced and sold for medicinal purposes. Thinking out loud blog said one specialty was a chocolate-camphor throat lozenge for coughs. Apparently the company had its own cocoa plantations in Nicaragua and its own fleet to bring the cocoa to France. Sugar was produced locally from sugar beets.

The town is now in the eastern suburbs of Paris, only 21 ks from the centre. Yet the site became of interest to art historians only after new industrial architecture was developed on the River Marne. In 1872 Emile-Justin Menier, one of the long line of Menier Chocolate Co. directors, initiated a major building programme that created some of the most modern production facilities in the world.

Saulnier's main building, 1872-4

I am indebted to notes on the visual arts and popular culture for information about the power supply. In this period a channel was diverted from the local river, supplying the factory with water power; and a turbine mill was designed by the company architect.

The iron and brick chocolate factory at Noisiel really was one of the iconic buildings of the Industrial Revolution. Architect Jules Saulnier was given the task of constructing new buildings and improving the existing premises, to modernise and improve the chocolate-making process. In fact many historians cite the building as the first true skeleton structure. The old watermill building had a visible iron structure and distinctive industrial-looking ceramic tiles patterns, so we can safely say that both the design and the materials were impressive. The three dates carved above the entrance correspond to a] the year the old mill was built - 1157, b] the year the Menier factory was moved to Noisiel - 1825 and c] the year the Saulnier Mill replaced the old one - 1874.

Cathedral building: 1906-8

By the mid 1880s, production capacity at the Noisiel plant jumped to 125,000 tons annually. Mass production, in a clean and healthy working environment, became the industrial standard of the day and it was largely facilitated by the modern industrial architecture.

Because of the Menier company's rapid growth, the shortage of workers available from the small village forced the company to seek skilled workers from elsewhere. It must have worked, for at its peak, the company employed a workforce of over 2000 workers (see Architectural and Engineering Feats and Facts).
However the lack of housing in Noisiel was problematic, so Menier completed construction of 312 residences on 30 hectares of land near the factory in 1874. They eventually built a school for their employees' children and three decades later, a senior citizens' home for their retired workers. If it was the industrial revolution, it had a humane, benevolent face. In the 1870s, the Meniers also built the Noisiel town hall.

At the 1878 World's Fair in Paris, the company was awarded seven gold medals. They also won the Grand Prize for the excellence of their products and citations for their modern production methods and for looking after the well-being of their employees.

Cathedral: open, airy interior

Can we compare the Noisiel building with the Eiffel Tower for its impact on the public? After all, the dates are relatively close – the Eiffel Tower was designed and produced by Gustave Eiffel and his architect Stephen Sauvestre as the entrance arch for the 1889 World's Fair. Of course not. But had the vote been put to workers in the Menier chocolate factory, they may well have voted their buildings as having the greatest impact.

Following the death of Emile Justin Menier, in 1881, his sons Henri and Gaston assumed control of the business. Older son Henri became head of the company, but he left much of the company's management to Gaston who began the next era of Menier development and growth. The Menier plant added modern refrigeration systems. In 1881 a railroad line was built to the Noisiel factory, thus reducing costs for incoming and outgoing freight, and allowing for wider and faster distribution.

A new Menier factory building was positioned between the channel and the Marne River bank. This new, reinforced concrete structure was built in the 1906-1908 era and was known as la Cathédrale. The intention was to create a public showcase for the chocolate manufacturing process in the double height internal spaces. The project engineer was Armand Considere.

The company's water supply

The Menier chocolate factory is now headquarters of Nestlé France. In 1992, the factory was designated by the French government as an official historical monument and is today is used as a museum. The next honour will occur when the site is declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.


Phil Beard said...

This is one of my favourite places and I enjoyed reading your comments. The Saulnier building is magnificent. It's my ambition to time my next visit to coincide with one of the monthly guided tours.

Hermes said...

What a beautiful building. When did we loose the sense that industrial buildings and machines could have form and function.

This is meant for children but shows hoe chocolate mimics the opiates.


Pity it makes you fat as well!

ChrisJ said...

Such beautiful buildings. Fitting for the making of chocolate, which is medicine for both body and soul.

(I'm not so sure of the Nestle Co!)

Andrew said...

Fantastic buildings. Why can't functionality be combined with style now?

Hels said...

agreed, agreed. I am no fan of industrialists and capitalists who exploited the workers for every extra penny of profit that could be squeezed out. So the Menier Chocolate Co. were to be commended because they built a business that made workers' (and their families) lives healthy and productive.

The architect, Jules Saulnier, certainly designed the splendid new buildings and modernised the business, but he was commissioned by the directors SPECIFICALLY to provide efficient and pleasant facilities for workers.

Viola said...

What an interesting post, Hels! I had not heard of Menier before. I also think that buildings can be useful and beautiful. Our lives are blighted by concrete now.

Cadbury also took great care of their employees, I think. I hope that the new owners are following in Menier's footsteps!

Ellen said...

Thanks for citing my blog, Helen. I think that the paternalistic attitude of early industrialists was fairly widespread; there are lots of examples of it. Meunier was special in his determination to make his a showcase factory.
Phil, if you want to visit, make your reservation as soon as you can. We made our reservation in August and got a date in February! You might end up making your reservation and then planning your trip around that.
Viola, Nestlé uses the site as their French headquarters. They've got an attractive office building set in a wooded area.

wayfinding signage said...

I think this is one of those buildings that fits in with what it is used for.

Hels said...

Chris, Andrew and wayfinding

You all alluded to architecture being fit for the building's purpose. I suppose Bauhaus defined it best in the 1920s: that if something is only designed to fit its purpose, we can let beauty follow.

But Saulnier and Menier were working in the 1870s. How perfect that they could create architecture that fitted the function for which it was built AND was beautiful.

Tammy said...

Good well worded post! Great information.

Ginneva said...

Hey Tammy nice to hear from you on this post. I have to agree this is a nice post!