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Secret History of Buildings: Maisons sur l’Agout

From the 12th century to the 21st, these colourful houses in the Tarn town of Castres have been called home by residents on the lowest incomes

A row of brightly-coloured houses lining the banks of the river Agout in Castres neatly illustrates the principle that historic buildings can do more for a place than merely attract tourists to it. By the early 1970s, the maisons sur l’Agout were the town's slum quarters, considered by many to be ripe for demolition. Their subsequent renovation and conversion to social housing achieved the twin goals of preserving an important part of the region’s cultural heritage and providing homes for local residents on lower incomes. 

The decision to use the buildings for social housing is fitting for structures originally designed to accommodate and employ working people. Thought to date back to the end of the 12th century, the maisons sur l’Agout were first occupied by a mixture of tanners, parchment-makers and textile workers: in short, anyone practising a trade which required river water for the processing of wools and animal skins. 

The structure of the houses is utilitarian. At their base is a cellar which would originally have contained a wash room, and with arched openings to allow the direct inflow of river water. The cellar is known as a caoussino, an Occitan word meaning “limewash factory”. In these subterranean rooms, newly washed and rinsed animal skins would be dropped into vats of limewash in preparation for the next stage of the treatment. 

The first floor of the houses provided accommodation for the workers, and the second floor for their masters, although data from the reign of Louis XIV shows that it was not uniformly the case that the same people were living and working in the each building. The top two floors served as drying rooms, with small openings that could be regulated by means of wooden shutters to keep out the bright sun in summer and the biting frost in winter. The upper of these two floors is known as the soleiller and used to be largely open to the elements, to allow maximum penetration of the sun. 

Trades flourished within the walls of the maisons sur l’Agout for around 400 years before the buildings began their decline. Despite a lengthy period of neglect in the 20th century, however, their distinctive medieval structure lived on in the form of wooden balconies and corbels, structures that protrude, bracket-like, from mid-way up a building, and which bear the additional weight of the rooms above. 

The bright facades of the houses have led to their stretch of the river being dubbed “the little Venice of the Languedoc”, an impression which popular river journeys up and down the Agout does everything to reinforce. Their colours invoke the sun, ranging from ochre, through pink, yellow and green to blue, and are complemented by the cheerful floral displays left by many of the residents on their balconies. 

The decision to refurbish the maisons sur l’Agout was taken in 1974 when they were in an advanced state of dilapidation. At that time the authorities imposed obligations on all owners to undertake expensive renovations. Understandably, most of them balked at the cost, selling instead to the local public housing authority. 

Over a period of 20 years, the buildings were converted into comfortable apartments, the last of which was completed in 1992. A total of 87 of them are today classed as social housing. Their residents are not always keen on the tourists who gape at them from across the water, but most are proud to see their homes on postcards sent around the globe, and would not want to move out. 

Since completion of the renovations, the maisons sur l’Agout have become emblematic of Castres, and visitor numbers have greatly increased. The only disadvantage to the scheme is that the public do not get to see inside the buildings, unless they happen to be on friendly terms with the tenants…

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