Flaine: The snow queen who came in from the cold
Derided for its bland Modernism, the French resort of Flaine is getting a facelift. Stephen Wood reports on the rebirth of a Sixties architectural icon
Saturday 10 December 2005
Flaine, in the French Alps, has a setting to make other ski resorts envious. It sits in a natural bowl largely filled with trees, into which a wide gorge runs down from the ridge of Les Grandes Platières, at 2,480m. Up there, amid the snowfields, is one of the great panoramas of the Alps, a group portrait of Mont Blanc and its surrounding peaks.
When he first hiked up to the site, Eric Boissonnas - who created the resort with his wife, Sylvie - was "amazed", he wrote in his book Flaine, la création. "Forests of spruce everywhere up to 1,900m; above, slow-growing trees that survive the worst weather. A stream cascading to the bottom of the valley. The south flank seemingly skiable, if pistes could be cut through the forest; a north face of vertical cliffs, and three shelves on which a resort might be built."
The next year, in 1960, the architect who Boissonnas appointed to design the resort arrived by helicopter. Marcel Breuer, from a Bauhaus stalwart, was equally delighted. He described it as "a wonderful place", and would aim "not to spoil it".
Did he succeed? Yes, according to France's architectural establishment, which made Flaine the only ski resort to appear in the French Historical Monuments Inventory in 1991. But by that time, Flaine's architecture was being vilified, notably in The Good Skiing & Snowboarding Guide and Where to Ski and Snowboard. Editions of the former took the view that the resort's architecture made it "a disaster area"; the latter claimed that Flaine had acquired the nickname "Phlegm" in some quarters.
Neither guide criticised Flaine's skiing. And how could they? The focal point of Le Grand Massif, the fifth-largest ski area in France, Flaine has good terrain for beginners and intermediates in the bowl, long and sometimes steep descents to the villages of Samoëns, Morillon, Les Carroz and Sixt, good off-piste and a black run beneath the gondola. But what lay at the bottom of the slopes was a problem. Flaine's rigorous, 1960s concrete blocks did not offer a warm welcome; and in the 1990s (when Flaine was owned by banks - never a good thing for a ski resort) its commercial centre was often about as lively at night as a shopping mall.
Flaine has not languished: Le Grand Massif gets about a million skier-visits per season, thanks to its skiing and to the fact that it is closer to Geneva airport than any other major ski area. But for the decade that I have known - and loved - the place, it has always threatened, ultimately, to meet the same fate as several 1960s housing estates, turned to dust in a series of controlled explosions shown on the Sunday early evening news.
That's unlikely to happen now. The future of Flaine has almost certainly been assured by the giant Canadian developer Intrawest.
Having made a success of several North American resorts, Intrawest came to Europe in May 2002. Its first project was Arc 1950 Le Village, a development of 700 residential units at the resort of Les Arcs. That project is set for completion in 2007, and the Intrawest team - led by a French Canadian, Robert Jérôme - is now turning its attention to Flaine, where, if all goes to plan, the first of 550 residential units will be completed in the spring of 2008.
Jérôme makes clear that Montsoleil, as the development at Flaine is called, is a different kind of project. "It will not be a village, a place that might attract people in from other parts of the resort," he says. Rather, it is planned simply as a residential community with the minimum of services: a bar and a restaurant, a general store and ski-rental shop, a spa and pool. It will also break with Intrawest tradition stylistically. Previous developments have been based on traditional architecture of the region. Montsoleil, however, will have "an architectural vocabulary that is more contemporary".
In other words, it will defer to Breuer's original buildings "but with sloping roofs, and more warmth: it will be somewhere between Savoyard style and modern architecture".
The Montsoleil site lies between the original centre and a Scandinavian development of wooden "cabins" built just above the resort in the mid-Eighties. Being separate, the three areas will not compromise one another architecturally. And Jérôme believes that Montsoleil's 550 residential units will benefit Breuer's original centre.
Intrawest will offer most of the apartments on a "sale and lease-back" arrangement, which under French law confers a tax concession on purchasers. For the duration of the lease (normally 11 years), owners have access to their apartments for only a few weeks and must put them into a rental pool for the remainder of the year.
Ski resorts abhor "cold beds": if restaurants and bars are to be busy, lift tickets to be sold, and checkout tills to ring, apartments must be occupied. And if foreign skiers are to come to France, there must be apartments available (hence the tax break, designed to develop inbound tourism).
While Jérôme will not commit to the view that Flaine's centre might be a less-than-lively place at night, he recognises what guests at Montsoleil will bring. "There will be a synergy," he says: "For the restaurants and shops in the resort we will provide an opportunity, and they will respond to it."
Apart from the local shopkeepers and restaurateurs, others will benefit from the Montsoleil development, as well as Intrawest. British investors in property, for example: they bought about 70 per cent of the units at Arc 1950 Le Village.
Holidaymakers will have the opportunity to stay in more luxurious apartments than are currently available. And the Compagnie des Alpes - the giant, publicly owned ski-area operator, which sold Intrawest the right to develop the Montsoleil site - will profit again from the expected increased sale of lift tickets.
All this would make good sense to Eric Boissonnas, who - although trained as a geophysicist - was working as a banker when he conceived the idea of Flaine with his brother (also a banker). But he was a financier with ideals. Maurice Michaud, the government administrator who supervised the Alpine projects of the French skiing boom of the 1960s and 1970s, apparently described Boissonnas as "a poet suffering from having 40 billion Francs" - a remark for which he was instructed to apologise by France's tourism minister.
This poetic side led Boissonnas and his wife to create an art gallery at Flaine, and a small concert hall. There is a library, too, with books in three languages, outdoor sculptures by Picasso and Dubuffet and an exquisite chapel commissioned from Marcel Breuer. Flaine doesn't just look exceptional; it is exceptional. Only Aspen in Colorado can share the distinction of being a ski resort with a head and a heart.
Devotees of the resort - Flaineurs, perhaps - may fear that these idealistic elements will be diluted by Intrawest's presence. Still, there is no doubt that the gloom over Flaine in the 1990s has now ascended. The worst that the 2006 edition of Where to Ski and Snowboard has to say is that the resort is "austere". And the Great (née Good) Skiing & Snowboarding Guide believes that Flaine "is about to become the hottest property in the Alps".
Geneva is well-served by airlines from the UK; easyJet (0905 821 0905; www.easyJet.com) flies from Belfast, Bristol, Bournemouth, Glasgow, Doncaster/Sheffield, Edinburgh, Liverpool, Gatwick, Luton, Stansted, Newcastle and Nottingham. Other airlines serving Geneva include Bmibaby (0870 264 2229; www.bmibaby.com), BA (0870 850 9 850; www.ba.com), FlyBe (0871 700 0123; www.flybe. com), flyglobespan (08705 561 522; www.flyglobespan.com), Jet2 (0870 737 8282; www.jet2.com) and Swiss (0845 601 0956; www.swiss.com).
Flaine Cultural Centre (art gallery and library; 00 33 4 50 90 41 73). Open daily except Tuesdays and Saturdays from 4-7pm; admission free.
Great Skiing & Snowboarding Guide 2006 by Peter and Felice Hardy (Cadogan; £15.99); Where to Ski and Snowboard 2006, by Chris Gill and Dave Watts (NortonWood, £16.99).
Flaine Ski Resort, Haute-Savoie (00 33 4 50 90 80 01; www.flaine.com).
Arc 1950 Le Village, Savoie (00 33 4 7904 1900; www.arc1950.com).
Intrawest developments (contact Erna Low Property, 020-7590 1624; www.ernalowproperty.co.uk)
French Government Tourist Office (09068 244123, calls 60p/min; www.franceguide.com).
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