Designs on the future

Les Diablerets has ditched the traditional Alpine look in favour of high style. And it doesn't get much higher than this, says Stephen Wood

A couple of years ago I asked an advertising man (and skier) why so much ski marketing was based on nostalgic imagery. The question was prompted by an advertising campaign that had just begun for Beaver Creek in Colorado, a 20-year-old resort whose ski area was the first to be modelled with the aid of a computer. Its advertisements featured illustrations styled on 1930s posters of the kind that the Christie's auction house sells in its annual sale of ski memorabilia.

A couple of years ago I asked an advertising man (and skier) why so much ski marketing was based on nostalgic imagery. The question was prompted by an advertising campaign that had just begun for Beaver Creek in Colorado, a 20-year-old resort whose ski area was the first to be modelled with the aid of a computer. Its advertisements featured illustrations styled on 1930s posters of the kind that the Christie's auction house sells in its annual sale of ski memorabilia.

The adman, Steve Hastings, replied that old skiing images served as an "emotional signpost" to traditional values, harking back to a time "when life was easier and the air was cleaner, when skiing offered a sense of pioneering and real adventure".

This approach clearly worked for Beaver Creek: two years on, the illustrations may have changed but the style of the advertising remains exactly the same. And other US resorts have followed Beaver Creek's lead. Flick through an American ski magazine and you will see that many resorts promote themselves with sepia-print photographs of lone skiers on heavily wooded slopes, old wood-block typefaces and other devices intended to conjure up skiing as it used to be.

Hastings was right – much of skiing's appeal is based on nostalgia. The modern world impinges heavily on the sport, with everything from global warming to high-speed, eight-seater lifts. But when most skiers head up into the mountains, they look for something more than just skiing; they also hope, for a week or so, to enter a parallel world ruled by tradition, one that is far removed – by attitude as much as altitude – from their own.

Take the Alpine diet, for example. For the mountain farmer, the onset of winter demanded large doses of rich, fatty food to provide a protective layer against the cold and a source of energy for the hard work of tramping about about hillsides. Skiers encased in wick undergarments, fleeces and triple-layer Gore-tex don't need a layer of fat as well. Thanks to ski-lifts they don't use much energy – anyone who thinks skiing is serious exercise is kidding themselves. But skiers still routinely tuck into a meat-and-cheese dinner as if their lives depended on it. Why? Because in happy NostalgiaLand, cholesterol hasn't yet been discovered and nobody feels obliged to watch their weight.

Take ski-resort architecture, too. In a historical theme park, modernity is an unwelcome intrusion, so the old-mountain-village myth is maintained by a sprawl of chalet-style buildings, all steeply sloping roofs and wooden balconies. One struggles to find anyone who admits to liking the modern architecture of purpose-built resorts: Flaine in France, designed by one of the great 20th-century architects, Marcel Breuer, has long been described by the two major British ski guidebooks as one of the ugliest in the Alps (although to be fair, attitudes seem to have softened in this season's editions). Hotel and chalet interiors almost uniformly subscribe to a nostalgic, pine-panelling-and-chintz style of decor designed to create a cosy atmosphere – although central heating now does the cosying job so effectively that you are usually forced to open the bedroom windows at night.

These somewhat dyspeptic thoughts crystallised on a trip I made two weeks ago to ski on the glacier at Les Diablerets in Switzerland. The dynamic company that operates the ski area alongside the 2,970m Scex Rouge is called Glacier 3000, under which name the area is now also being marketed. It reckons it has provided the most up-to-date lifts in the Alps.

The old cable cars to Scex Rouge were replaced in 1999 by new ones – with three times the capacity – that are cunningly designed so that passengers do not have to climb a single step on their two-stage journey from the car park right up to the peak. They also offer the luxury of 0.223sqm space for each passenger to stand in, compared with the legal minimum of 0.2sqm, which is usually what you get.

Despite the swift and smooth ride offered by the new cable cars, this is a journey on which it is definitely better to arrive than to travel. Glacier 3000 commissioned Switzerland's best-known architect, Mario Botta, to design the restaurant building at the top station. The steel-and-glass landmark he created is in stark contrast to the nostalgic style that has dominated skiing architecture of the last decade. But Glacier 3000 is sufficiently convinced of the marketing value of the building – and its architect – to have named it Botta 3000.

Born in 1943 in the Italian-speaking Ticino region of Switzerland, Botta gained early experience in Le Corbusier's studio before going on to set up his own practice in 1969. He made his name with densely detailed concrete and brick structures, mostly in Switzerland but some as far away as South Korea and India. When Glacier 3000 sought to interest him in the Les Diablerets project, it flew him from Ticino straight to the glacier, where the plane landed on its ski undercarriage. According to the company's director, Jean-Paul Jotterand, Botta stared around the site, repeating aloud " La lumière!", and announced that he would take the job.

His building, completed in July, is what Botta calls an "excavated" rectangle: the shape is like a vandalised Rubik's Cube, with sections pulled away to reveal windows or merely cavities. Anywhere else it might not seem that dramatic, but perched alongside a mountain peak, refusing to blend in with the scenery – Botta wanted "to make a mark" – it is very striking, particularly viewed from the valley. Botta also designed the restaurant's interior, a civilised mixture of dark grey carpeting, slatted wood facings and vast windows, the one facing down the cable car jutting out like a greenhouse roof. The food is equally restrained, nouvelle-ish and light – shredded veal with lime, fresh mushrooms in a pancake (a Tunisian style of food known as brik) – and the service excellent. The cups, also Botta's work, are white, with a black hieroglyphic representing the building's shape.

The glacier skiing at Les Diablerets is unremarkable: the area is relatively large, but also relatively flat. But in a couple of weeks' time, snow permitting, it will be possible to ski off the glacier to the Combe d'Audon piste, a steep, winding run down a narrow valley with sensational views. Great architecture, modern food, and one of the most enjoyable pistes in the Alps. There's no need to look back when one has that to look forward to.

 

Further information: 00 41 24 492 3377, info@glacier3000.ch

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