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

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".

Traveller's Guide


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).

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

people Emma Watson addresses celebrity nude photo leak
Katie Hopkins appearing on 'This Morning' after she purposefully put on 4 stone.
peopleKatie Hopkins breaks down in tears over weight gain challenge
peopleHis band Survivor was due to resume touring this month
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Robert De Niro, Martin Scorsese and DiCaprio, at an awards show in 2010
filmsDe Niro, DiCaprio and Pitt to star
In this photo illustration a school student eats a hamburger as part of his lunch which was brought from a fast food shop near his school, on October 5, 2005 in London, England. The British government has announced plans to remove junk food from school lunches. From September 2006, food that is high in fat, sugar or salt will be banned from meals and removed from vending machines in schools across England. The move comes in response to a campaign by celebrity TV chef Jamie Oliver to improve school meals.
Life and Style
Red or dead: An actor portrays Hungarian countess Elizabeth Báthory, rumoured to have bathed in blood to keep youthful
Arts and Entertainment
James Dean on the set of 'Rebel without a Cause', 1955
photographyHe brought documentary photojournalism to Tinseltown, and in doing so, changed the way film stars would be portrayed for ever
people'It can last and it's terrifying'
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Arts and Entertainment
Life and Style
fashionModel of the moment shoots for first time with catwalk veteran
Tom Cleverley
footballLoan move comes 17 hours after close of transfer window
Alexis Sanchez, Radamel Falcao, Diego Costa and Mario Balotelli
footballRadamel Falcao and Diego Costa head record £835m influx
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Marketing Executive / Member Services Exec

    £20 - 26k + Benefits: Guru Careers: A Marketing Executive / Member Services Ex...

    Sales Account Manager

    £15,000 - £25,000: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity has arisen for ...

    VB.NET and C# developer (VB.NET,C#,ASP.NET)

    £30000 - £45000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: VB.NET a...

    Business Development Manager / Sales Pro

    £30 - 35k + Uncapped Comission (£70k Y1 OTE): Guru Careers: A Business Develop...

    Day In a Page

    Chief inspector of GPs: ‘Most doctors don’t really know what bad practice can be like for patients’

    Steve Field: ‘Most doctors don’t really know what bad practice can be like for patients’

    The man charged with inspecting doctors explains why he may not be welcome in every surgery
    Stolen youth: Younger blood can reverse many of the effects of ageing

    Stolen youth

    Younger blood can reverse many of the effects of ageing
    Bob Willoughby: Hollywood's first behind the scenes photographer

    Bob Willoughby: The reel deal

    He was the photographer who brought documentary photojournalism to Hollywood, changing the way film stars would be portrayed for ever
    Hollywood heavyweights produce world's most expensive corporate video - for Macau casino

    Hollywood heavyweights produce world's most expensive corporate video - for Macau casino

    Scorsese in the director's chair with De Niro, DiCaprio and Pitt to star
    Angelina Jolie's wedding dress: made by Versace, designed by her children

    Made by Versace, designed by her children

    Angelina Jolie's wedding dressed revealed
    Anyone for pulled chicken?

    Pulling chicks

    Pulled pork has gone from being a US barbecue secret to a regular on supermarket shelves. Now KFC is trying to tempt us with a chicken version
    9 best steam generator irons

    9 best steam generator irons

    To get through your ironing as swiftly as possible, invest in one of these efficient gadgets
    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

    US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
    Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
    Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
    Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

    The big names to look for this fashion week

    This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
    Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing