Concrete Style | On Finding Beauty In The Alps At Their Most Brutal
The modernist French ski resorts built in the 1960s from scratch
Words by Sam Haddad
When you think of a quintessential ski resort, you probably picture chalets with triangular roofs, tidy wooden panelling, perhaps some shutters, a stone chimney, maybe even a church with a steeple. Chocolate box-style. Though I’ve never seen such a scene on a box of chocolates anywhere I’ve ever shopped.
These resorts are meant to be the dream. The places we all aspire to take our snows holidays to or if we’re mega-rich buy a bolthole in. And, while I get the cuteness appeal, especially when covered in pillow-like snow, it can also feel like a dated backward-looking aesthetic, one that doesn’t always match the majesty of a mountain backdrop.
"He brought cubes, raw milky grey concrete, hard lines and right angles into a high Alpine setting…"
Yet that traditional ski resort look is pervasive. So much so that the biggest attempt to update it with something more progressive took place almost 60 years ago. It happened in the French Haute-Savoie, when one of the 20th century’s leading architects Marcel Breuer, a Hungarian-born former Bauhaus master, was given carte blanche to build a resort of the future at Flaine.
And Breuer did do something genuinely radical: he brought cubes, raw milky grey concrete, hard lines and right angles into a high Alpine setting. Transporting an architectural style known as brutalism into a snowy mountain world that could not be more opposite from its usual urban habitat.
How did it happen? In post-war France things were going well. The economy was growing as was the population and the public were keen to spend their new disposable income on leisure pursuits such as skiing. To update the appeal of ski tourism in France both at home and internationally and avoid mass migration from rural mountain areas the government decided to build some new ski resorts at Flaine, Les Arcs, Avoriaz and La Plagne.
The resorts were to be purpose-built, car-free, integrated with a central ski hub, and with ski lifts near the apartments for ease of getting around. They were also planned at a high enough altitude to guarantee maximum snow, long before climate change was the big concern it is now. Each resort’s style was shaped by the personality of its project owners, which in the case of Flaine was Eric Boissonnas and his wife Sylvie.
"She put the Picasso sculpture “totem, Head of a Woman" at the bottom of the slopes and Dubuffet’s "Boqueteau" in the centre of the resort."
The Boissonnas were mountain lovers and keen skiers, with a passion for modern art and design, which they’d nurtured during time spent in America. Of his vision for Flaine Eric would later say: "We came up with the idea in 1959 to create, somewhere in France, a prototype for urban planning, architecture and design, the immediate profitability of which would be less important than aesthetic choices and respect for the environment."*
Sylvie created the Flaine Art Centre and between 1970 and 1995 organised over 70 exhibitions to help skiers discover contemporary art. She put the Picasso sculpture “totem, Head of a Woman" at the bottom of the slopes and Dubuffet’s "Boqueteau" in the centre of the resort. Later, she was a founding member of the Pompidou Centre in Paris.
For the Boissonnas Breuer’s architecture had a certain toughness, embodied by his use of hard materials such as concrete, that fitted well with the mountains. Breuer said: “The builder should feel free to reject tradition, free to be scientific, human, nontraditional…the entire composition is integrated into the magnificent and wild landscape of Flaine, which it partners and humanises." **
"What a wonderful site! How do we avoid spoiling it?"
Though in 1960 in the beginning, after he was chosen for the project and was first taken to Flaine in a helicopter, he said: "What a wonderful site! How do we avoid spoiling it?"*
Many would argue he didn’t. When I google Flaine the search engine offers to autofill the next word with “ugly" or “unpopular". When it opened in 1968 reception was mixed, with many visitors unsettled to visit a ski resort, which didn’t match their visual expectation, though others did appreciate its super-experimental style. In the 1980s as brutalism became evermore synonymous with dystopian and bleak urban tower blocks, Flaine’s aesthetic really fell from favour.
Yet now things appear to have come full circle. Brutalism is very much in favour again. In London, concrete behemoths such as Trellick Tower, the Barbican and the Royal National Theatre on the South Bank are tourist attractions in their own right. Brutalism is seen as the opposite of tasteless opulence and bling, as Felix Salmon wrote recently in the Guardian: “It’s is down-to-earth, honest, unpretentious, egalitarian, and creates buildings rooted in place."
Today many skiers and snowboarders visit Flaine purely because of its brutalist and mid-century modern vibes, which are especially embodied at the stunning Totem Hotel. It originally opened in 1971 but has recently been restored to its original stripped-down look by Terminal Neige, the hip offshoot brand of the luxury Maisons & Hotels Sibulet group.
Avoriaz, another of the prototype ski resorts, is also popular for its original look and dramatic perched-on-a-clifftop-location. It rejected a neo-rustic emulation of traditional mountain resorts, though it went far less heavy on the concrete than Flaine, instead covering its apartment towers in red cedar wood. This timber encourages snow to stick to it, making the resort look even more striking in winter.
When it opened in 1966 it became the hip mountain hangout for Parisians, including Serge Gainsbourg, Jane Birkin and Brigitte Bardot, earning it the nickname “St. Tropez des neiges." Now about to celebrate its 50-year anniversary, it was the work of a young iconic architect, Jacques Labro. As with Flaine, Avoriaz was like nothing that had come before, and the design was deemed a far more important consideration than how much it cost.
"When Avoriaz it opened in 1966 it became the hip mountain hangout for Parisians, including Serge Gainsbourg, Jane Birkin and Brigitte Bardot, earning it the nickname “St. Tropez des neiges."
Designed as massive timber mountains, the pyramidal apartment blocks lost out on sellable surface area and needed lifts, which cost a lot of money. They also only built apartments with a sunny south-facing aspect, which again meant they lost revenue. The views given to each apartment was central to the idea, and the roofs followed the lines of the landscape.
Labro said: “The landscape belongs to the architecture, and the architecture belongs to the landscape, identifying with it…everything should look similar but nothing should look the same." As is the case in the natural world.
The project manager Gérard Brémond said: “My approach was the very essence of unprofessional: no tests or investigations were carried out before we went ahead and built. What I was interested in at the time was conceiving an urbanistic and architectural project completely from scratch."
This millennium Avoriaz, like Flaine and Les Arcs, was designated an “Architectural Heritage of the 20th Century" site by the French Ministry of Culture. It’s extremely rare, especially in Europe, to get the chance to design a resort from nothing. Not to mention controversial as was the case with the proposed Jumbo Wild resort in Canada and the plans to build in Norway’s Lyngen Alps.
Yet in Les Arcs, another of the French prototype resorts, they do encourage students to have an input on apartment-design as part of their university course. Les Arcs was originally designed by the architect Charlotte Perriand, who had previously worked with Le Corbusier. In the 1960s detractors accused the planners there of trying to “concrete over the mountains" though Perriand’s plan was always about conservation of nature as paramount.
"Les Arcs worked to an ethos of being 'a fashionable resort where you live well.'"
She designed dramatic sloped roofs to mirror the mountain slopes, and as with Avoriaz the apartment views were prioritised and showcased with giant windows. Balconies were raised to allow light to flood into the apartments and kitchens were open-plan. Les Arcs worked to an ethos of being “a fashionable resort where you live well." And today the tourist office still celebrates its design running weekly tours around the resort’s most iconic architecture.
It’s funny to think these modern resorts were created in the 1960s yet they still feel so strikingly fresh and new. To me at least there’s a raw beauty in seeing grey concrete and hard lines in a white, rocky mountain setting. In Chamonix, where I once lived, there was a lot of quaintness to enjoy and the super-traditional train station will always give me goosebumps but it was the retro concrete curves of the swimming pool and sports centre that were favourite buildings in town. Especially when seen from a steadily-rising cable car up to Brevent.
Perhaps that’s just because I was raised in a city. But then as most of us are these days, which could explain why these original prototype resorts are beginning to enjoy a more perpetual popularity.
*Quoted in the book Eric Boissonnas, Flaine, la création Ed. du Linteau, 1994.
** Quoted in the book M. Breuer in 1968, in Projets et réalisations récentes, Ed. Vincent, Fréal & Co, 1970