Picture the ‘ideal’ ski accommodation and something like this might come to mind – a cluster of log cabins tucked quietly amidst a pristine drift of snow, complete with kitsch flower-lined terraces and a moose head above each roaring fire place. The chocolate box Euro-ski cabin has remained pretty much unchanged for hundreds of years. After a cold, hard day on the slopes, it is designed to be a familiar, comforting blanket to wrap yourself up in while boozing into a cozy stupor.
But 50 years ago, a super rich pair of French art lovers decided to go totally off-piste. In a radical artistic, architectural and sporting experiment, Parisian financier Éric Boissonnas and his heiress wife Sylvie, founded the boldly Brutalist ski resort of Flaine.
"Where else can you ski right up to a monumental Victor Vasarely, Jean Dubuffet or Picasso piece?"
What resulted was a idiosyncratic collision of worlds – with the lofty pretentiousness of the international art set smashing head on into the button-down conventions of Alpine skiing. Suffice to say, they encountered some moguls along the way.
The site was selected by the Boissonnas', who became convinced of the potential of this natural bowl on the French-border – with the cherry on top being a sublime view of Mont Blanc. That the local Savoyard farmers weren’t particularly interested in an 8-person mega-lift network up their hillside was neither here nor there.
Of course, the foundation of a commercial ski-station on a pristine mountain side is always going to be a controversial affair. Just look at the drawn out developer vs. First Nations brawl over Jumbo Glacier Resort in B.C. for a contemporary example. Flaine, however, was never intended to just be plonked down without care.
Laurent Chappis, the urbanist famous in ski-circles for his work at Courchevel, was drafted in from the very beginning. His essential design philosophy, which I will paraphrase as ‘Give A Shit About The Hillside’, led to the founding of ‘Fourth Generation’ ski stations – self contained settlements that try not to ruin the ridges around them. He also gave the world ‘Snow Front’ stays – the ability to ski right up to the door of your accommodation – thus drastically reducing the average time between skis-off and beers-on.
Unfortunately, the cautiously thoughtful Chappis’ outlook eventually began to annoy the big boss. Boissonnas, a man with a fiery temper and a singular vision, had been described by local press as a “poet suffering from having 40 billion Francs”. No one was going to dilute this avowed modernist's vision of an artistic ski utopia. This was the 1960s after all. A time when the architectural avant-garde would never think to question the faith that strict concrete right-angles are always the right solution, no matter the problem.
"Ski is an elitist pursuit – concrete, communal apartment blocks were never going to sell much fondue"
It was the crescendo of half a century of demolitions in France – first by war, and then by planners hellbent on sweeping away the grime and complexity of the old world. Folks like the Boissonnas’ saw the aesthetic future of Europe in the hypermodern ‘Banlieue’ blocks that were sprouting up in concentric rings around Paris. Chappis, they decided was not the right man for the job.
Enter Marcel Breuer. Born in Hungary, he had fled 50 years prior to the newly-founded Bauhaus in Weimar, Germany. At the age of 18, Breuer lucked his way into the inner circle of the brand spanking new Cult Of Modernism. He was tutored by greats of the movement – not least ‘International Style’ god Walter Gropius.
Like every good Bauhaus disciple, Breuer obsessed over every element of the designed world. For instance, despite later working on monumental architectural projects around the world, he is to this day perhaps best known for the light-weight steel chairs he developed as a student.
Gropius himself was so impressed by the young designer's work that they formed a lifelong professional relationship – eventually fleeing wartime Europe together for Britain, then America. With them they carried their high-European rectilinear style, landing block after cuboid block like alien craft on cities across the English speaking world.
Breuer was especially influential as a teacher at the Harvard Graduate Design School. Had he been born just a little earlier, he might today enjoy the same infamy as modernist messiahs like Le Corbusier. Instead, Breuer made a career diligently piecing together the nutty futurist musings of his elders into a mature, muscular and highly personal style. From a distance his late stuff can appear like thuggish impassive slabs of grey concrete – but up close, a host of quirky, buck-toothed kinks appear. His buildings have a sense of humour, but play it very straight.
All this must have been too much for the Boissonnas’ to resist. Hungry to capture the zeitgeist, the pair swiftly commissioned the entire Flaine resort in the new Anglo-American ‘Brutalist’ style – in concrete poured and sculpted by the genius of Marcel Breuer.
What they got was a constellation of trademark concrete hotel blocks – including one which hangs daringly over the edge of a sheer cliff face.
Each was carefully constructed in every tiny detail by the architect's office – from sculptural fireplaces, to bent steel door handles designed to fit a ski glove. The facade slabs were faceted in a distinctive crystalline pattern so as to catch the light as it bounced off the balconies. So far, so nerdy.
An indoor art centre and funkily angular chapel were added. As Gilbert Coquard, the Director of the resorts Centre of Art puts it, “art is in the DNA of Flaine”. Coquard is right. The slopes are also littered with the work of leading abstract artists. Where else can you ski right up to a monumental Victor Vasarely, Jean Dubuffet or Picasso piece?
“Why does art have to be limited to museums?” he continues, “Flaine is an open air museum.” This is the Bauhaus spirit embodied; an experimental mixing of every medium.
It’s safe to say that Flaine was a total departure from tradition. As defiantly distinct as possible from the cozy low-slung huts in the neighbouring valleys. It asked visitors to step out of their comfort zone – to abandon their alpine preconceptions and stay in a Brutalist sculpture called ‘Bételgeuse’. Unfortunately, this was all too much for the French ski set.
Having seen the social shit-show unfolding in the rent-controlled Parisian suburbs, the average mid-century European mainly associated concrete with being mugged in piss-stained stairwells. Besides, skiing has always been a self-consciously elitist pursuit – using the architectural language of the communal apartment block was never going to sell much fondue.
Like Le Corbusier’s similarly styled Unite D’Habitation block in Marseille, branded by locals as ‘The House of the Crackpot’, Breuer’s work was just too radical. It is Kraftwerk trying to Yodel.
Despite bragging all of the most modern of mod-cons - Europe’s first artificial snow cannon included, Flaine floundered. For the last fifty years it has languished at the back of the Alpine pack – considered, frankly, a bit of an ugly duckling. But things are looking up.
2019 marks 100 years of the Bauhaus, triggering the critical reappraisal of what can now be seen as an historically important style. A half-century's distance has also allowed for a renewed appreciation of Brutalism – Modernism's least polite offspring.
An endless string of think pieces and stylish photo stories are helping the public retrospectively apply a cozy, fuzzy nostalgia to the concrete ‘carbuncles’ they once despised.
The Flaine resort itself is getting a ‘Mad Men mid-century’ reboot, with prestigious Maisons et Hotels Sibuet group overhauling one block to accentuate its idiosyncratic 60s style, including bringing in a veritable army of Breuer bent-metal chairs and abstract artworks in spades.
Flaine is now the perfect ski retreat for those who would like to raise a drink to the mad genius of the Bauhaus, and the unruly children it spawned, warts and all. As Coquard sums it up, “it’s a modern place for modern people, even today”.