Architecture In Les Arcs | The French Ski Resort Born of Socialist Vision

In the late 1960s, the French architect Charlotte Perriand imagined a resort where the masses could enjoy the mountains and immerse themselves in nature. It feels a far cry from today’s world…

When it snows, the apartment blocks of Les Arcs 1800 disappear from view. Riding down the mountain, the buildings’ bold lines blend in to the slope below, or else they’re masked by the thick white forest around them.

Up close they re-emerge, looking spectacular. Some of the roofs swoop down like ski jumps, while others perfectly mirror the jagged ridge line across the other side of the Tarentaise valley. The towers reach as high as the fir trees, giving the effect they’re part of the same forest. That we’re all connected somehow, the guests and the landscape.

“Perriand’s utopian vision and noble ambition harks back to a time when the majority of people could feel optimistic about the future, not just those at the top of the pyramid”

We’re not meant to like purpose-built resorts of course, and certainly not high-rise ones that pack in thousands of units like this. We’re supposed to love cute ski resorts. To crave the chocolate box charm of traditional villages and wooden chalets fashioned from old cow sheds. But I’ve always found those types of places twee. Tory even; they’re like an Alpine iteration of the Cotswolds.

Perhaps that’s because they also cost a premium, servicing that increasingly booming luxury market for skiing and snowboarding that those of us who fell in love with winter sports when things weren’t so damn expensive find weird and unsettling. Snow holidays were never budget trips obviously, but twenty years ago they were definitely more affordable for more people than they are today.

And having lots of super-rich on the slopes does change the vibe. On a recent powder day, I got massive tuts for squeezing onto a packed gondola from a snooty couple who clearly had no concept of why I needed to get up the mountain as quickly as possible. “Don’t worry, we’ll go back to Ischgl next year darling…” the man assured his partner. In some ways that’s ok, as rich people not getting it invariably means more fresh snow for the rest of us, but the big worry with this changing demographic is that these amazing life-changing experiences in nature become out of reach for more people than ever.

“In 1995, 20% of the clientele in a French ski resort were between 15-25, whereas now it’s down to 14%”

It’s a problem for British skiers and snowboarders, but an even greater concern in France, where young people are disengaging with a snowsports and mountain culture, that used to be such a core part of the nation’s heritage, at an alarming rate. A recent article in Le Monde said more than one in two young French people have never been skiing. And that in 1995, 20% of the clientele in a French ski resort were between 15-25, whereas now it’s down to 14%, with cost a massive prohibiting factor. In 2018, research showed you need an average daily budget of 73 euros on a ski trip, so it’s not surprising to see a higher proportion of wealthier and correspondingly older people on the slopes these days.

Which is the exact opposite of what Charlotte Perriand, the original architect of Les Arcs, had intended. Perriand, who was born in Paris in 1903, loved visiting her grandparents in the French Alps from an early age. She climbed the Dent du Chat in her youth and would later go on to summit Mont Blanc. She loved skiing and found being in the mountains extremely rejuvenating, inspired by what she called the “vast, open spaces of solitude and whiteness”.

“I love the mountains deeply,” she said. “I love them because I need them. They have always been the barometer of my physical and mental equilibrium. Why? Because the mountain offers [us] the possibility to overtake that which [we] need.”

“She wanted each person to have their own piece of mountain”

Perriand was a socialist, who felt passionately these positive experiences in snow and nature should be accessible for as many people as possible. Starting out as a furniture designer, she worked with the modernist icon Le Corbusier, encountering and rising above much sexism along the way.

She lived in Japan for a while and was inspired by the way nature was incorporated into architecture and design there. She also liked the country’s philosophy of promoting health through spending time amongst trees, which would later be popularised as shinrin-yoku or forest bathing. After having designed a chalet in Meribel, she was brought on board to create the brand-new resort of Les Arcs, which like Flaine, La Plagne and Avoriaz, was part of the French government’s plan to encourage people to take wholesome active holidays such as ski trips each year. The first village at Arc 1650 opened in 1968, followed by Arc 1800 in 1974, and she also oversaw the development of Arc 2000 in 1979.

For Perriand, it was paramount her buildings worked in harmony with the local landscape and “didn’t pollute the view” or damage the nature she loved so much. Instead of sprawling low-rise apartments or faux-traditional chalets, she built upwards to minimise the environmental impact; the resorts were originally designed as car-free. She wanted each block to hold a lot of people and for every flat to be simple but identical, with big windows offering the same epic quality of view, with an equal amount of sunlight, for every occupant, not just the ones paying for the penthouse.

It’s a concept that seems revolutionary compared to today, where the big money always gets the best views and the finest apartments, in ski resorts but also everywhere. Perriand’s utopian vision and noble ambition harks back to a time when the majority of people could feel optimistic about the future, not just those at the top of the pyramid.

“She wanted each person to have their own piece of mountain,” local historian Jean-Marie Chevronnet tells me during one of the resort’s insightful guided Archi Ski tours. “She had an egalitarian philosophy and her idea of luxury was that it was not something expensive, it was a great view of nature. She wanted to enhance that connection between people from the towns and the mountains. The apartments were small with minimal decoration inside as the main attraction was the landscape outside.”

Credit: Raj Bundhoo
Credit: Nicolas Joly

Perriand was also a feminist. She designed each flat with an open-plan kitchen and living area, so women wouldn’t be hidden away from the rest of the family during a ski holiday. It was so radical at the time she handed out her phone number to potential buyers who complained about the lack of walls, so she could talk them around. Her vision held true as it’s hard to imagine a holiday apartment with a closed-off kitchen now.

A lot of Perriand’s original flats and those inspired by them are still available to rent in Les Arcs 1650 and 1800. I recently stayed in one and it is striking how relaxing and spirit-lifting it is to have such a great view of the mountain landscape dominate your living space. The TV never went on and I barely checked my phone. I spent hours gazing at snow falling off fir trees. In the morning I’d watch the light gradually pour into the valley and after riding, stare for ages as day blurred into sunset then into night.

Though perhaps unsurprisingly the resort has had to add some bigger and more bling apartments and chalets on other sites to satisfy those who want more than just a functional space where the nature is front and centre. The same people who can now buy a more expensive lift pass, so they get to jump the queue, and ride the line which just used to be available for ski schools. It’s hard to imagine Charlotte Perriand being massively happy with that but such is the changing world.

And there are plenty of resorts far more swanky and elitist than Les Arcs, which offers subsidies for locals, and has decent value deals through operators such as Action Outdoors. Plus, it has such good freeride terrain it will always draw the best snowboarders and skiers in Europe, helping to keep that down-to-earth but also awestruck-by-nature vibe about the place that Perriand herself felt so keenly.

She would really like the environmental efforts the resort is making to minimise its impact and reduce its carbon footprint too, such as the electric funicular, which brings you up from the train station at Bourg St Maurice in just seven minutes making the resort super-easy to reach by train from the UK, Holland, Belgium and of course France. 60 per cent of the resort now runs on renewable energy, they use solar panels extensively, have bee hives everywhere, and adhere to strict laws on protecting the local biodiversity. Some of the piste groomers even run on natural gas.

Getting as many people as possible out to the mountains and deep into nature is important. Not just for our mental and physical health, though it’s obviously great for both those things. But it matters because the more time we spend in the natural world, the more we witness how fragile and precious it is, and the more passionately we feel about wanting to protect it. A sentiment that could not be more important as the climate crisis deepens, and another idea Charlotte Perriand was way ahead of her time in envisioning.

Credit: Sam Haddad

Do It Yourself

Les Arcs run Architecture Ski tours from 7 euros.

There is an exhibition of Charlotte Perriand’s work, including at Les Arcs, in Paris until the end of February.

For more info on Eurostar’s direct ski trains to Bourg St Maurice, visit the Eurostar website.

Action Outdoors run all-inclusive ski and snowboard trips to Les Arcs.

You May Also Like

Mother Huckers | Shredding While Pregnant And Why We Should Write Mums Into Snowboarding

Watch Freestyle Skier Jesper Tjäder Skiing On Top Of A Power Plant In Copenhagen

Newsletter Terms & Conditions

Please enter your email so we can keep you updated with news, features and the latest offers. If you are not interested you can unsubscribe at any time. We will never sell your data and you'll only get messages from us and our partners whose products and services we think you'll enjoy.

Read our full Privacy Policy as well as Terms & Conditions.