Travel: Skiing - Bauhaus in the mountains

It might be derided as a concrete monstrosity, but the Sixties- built Flaine boasts art and architecture as well as great views and good skiing
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The Independent Culture
The Hungarian-born architect Marcel Breuer first saw the rocky bowl in which he was to build the French ski resort of Flaine in late 1960. He arrived by helicopter, because there was no road up to the site, set in the mountains of the Haute-Savoie below Mont Blanc. What he saw delighted him.

"A wonderful place," he said. "How can we avoid spoiling it?"

Despite his international renown - he studied and taught in the 1920s at the Bauhaus school in Germany, then practised in Britain and the USA - Breuer needed special dispensation to design Flaine, because he was not qualified as an architect in France. It was four years before Breuer was authorised to work on the resort, which the director of planning for the region confidently predicted would "be considered beautiful 50 or 100 years from now".

Flaine is now 30 years old, almost to the day: its inauguration took place on 19 January 1969. And, to judge from the remarks about it in the 1999 Good Skiing Guide, it is making only slow progress towards being considered beautiful. The guide describes Flaine as "a disaster area". The rival Where to Ski guide places Flaine a close second to Les Menuires as the ugliest resort in the Alps. Both guides recognise its excellent skiing, reliable snow and well-earned reputation as a family resort. But neither of their reports would entice skiers to Flaine. Which is unfortunate, because it is an exceptional place.

The 1960s were a boom time for ski resorts in France: when Flaine opened, Arc 1600 was only a few weeks old, and Avoriaz - just up the road - was still being developed. With its limited car-access and ski-in, ski-out accommodation, Flaine has a lot in common with them.

But Breuer's design for Flaine is the furthest removed from the romantic ski-resort ideal of pitched-roof chalets and cow-sheds. Three clusters of concrete blocks march up one side of the bowl: the overall effect is brutal.

The architecture is extraordinary; yet the person who made Flaine such an singular resort is not Breuer but the man who hired him. Eric Boissonnas, who is now in his late eighties, founded Flaine, and it is thanks to him that the resort has a 500-seat concert hall, outdoor sculptures by Dubuffet, Vasarely and Picasso and a lending library with books in English and German as well as French.

For those who ski at Val d'Isere, it might be difficult to think of a link between "ski resort" and "culture". But Boissonnas managed to put the two together, adding a bit of religion: he commissioned a delightful ecumenical chapel from Breuer, hung with modern art, which sits by the main square.

Flaine has recently been bought by a subsidiary of Meribel's operating company, and its ski area is now benefiting from an investment programme of pounds 22m over five years.

It was Boissonnas, of course, who chose his resort's site (after a brief flirtation with an alternative, near Meribel). And he chose wisely: it's a wonderful place for skiers, as well as architects. The skiing goes up to 2480m at Les Grandes Platieres, which is served by a fast and efficient gondola from the resort. On a clear day, the view across to Mont Blanc and the Aiguille du Midi is sensational. The weather systems around Mont Blanc give Flaine more than its fair share of snow; and the northern aspect of the runs back down to the resort keeps them in condition.

Those runs are predominantly red, some of them difficult and bumpy. Down to one side is a long blue and right in the centre of the slope, dodging under the gondola is a black run. This wouldn't test the advanced skier, but it held the right amount of challenge for me, with tricky moguls at the top, a steep and narrow gully towards the middle, and then a fast sweep.

I enjoyed the skiing immensely, as well as the resort. Give me a few years and I'll find it beautiful, too.

For more information about Flaine, contact its UK representative, Erna Low (0171 584 2841; brochure line 0171 584 7820). `Flaine, la creation' by Eric Boissonnas, published by Editions du Linteau, Paris, costs 150 French francs