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Revisit: Marcel Breuer's Flaine resort and Charlotte Perriand's Les Arcs

De saussure mont blanc 1785 architectural review

Following CIAM’s ambition to make the Alps accessible to all, resorts by architects such as Marcel Breuer and Charlotte Perriand brought the masses to the mountains

‘The human organism – having had its psychic and physical energies consumed in the city – needs a powerful confrontation to provide quick regeneration, which can only come about through direct contact with the rawest nature.’ Discussing dwelling and leisure at CIAM 5 in Paris in the summer of 1937, Josep Lluís Sert, Le Corbusier, Szymon Syrkus and their friends stipulated zones of ‘complete leisure’ within the ‘framework of a national plan’ with the necessary infrastructure and a ‘network of fast transportation’. A law would prevent mountainous landscapes from being exploited by private entrepreneurs while these same scenic settings would ‘offer an extremely large field of study and experimentation for urban planning and architecture’. 

Flaine-marcel-breuer-architectural-review

Flaine-marcel-breuer-architectural-review

After the war, the Marshall Plan contributed to a construction boom. It was the emergence of the consumer society and mass tourism could prosper: Baudrillard’s Universal Man conquered the Alps. Lagging far behind Switzerland and Austria, winter sports were hardly developed in France at the time, but there was plenty of space in the mountains and radical new towns were possible. 

CIAM’s ambition to make the mountains accessible to everyone, and its maxim that the right of public use must be granted by the state to protect them from private speculation, remained utopian ideals. Instead, the target was the younger generation’s affluent middle class, and private investors divided up the mountains, in agreement with regions and municipalities who hoped it would provide an economic boost to counteract outward migration to cities. The state provided a fertile ground for the development of winter sports by adopting a law in 1958, giving private investors a free hand over a large area which could be seized for almost nothing.

Flaine-marcel-breuer-architectural-review

Flaine-marcel-breuer-architectural-review

Hôtel Le Flaine, Marcel Breuer

Since stylistic regulations were absent in the mountains, developer Eric Boissonnas wanted to build a ‘prototype of urbanism, architecture and design for the modern age’. No longer in vogue, Alpine construction made way for sophisticated, dynamic and forward-looking buildings: symbols of progress. Founded ex nihilo, the Flaine resort in Haute-Savoie remains one of the most radical examples of new urban experiments in the mountains.

After being taken up to a 1,600-metre-high cirque by a young mountain guide in the early 1960s, Boissonnas commissioned a prestigious name, Marcel Breuer, to help convince regional politicians of the value of this major project. Flying by helicopter over the vast plateau overlooking Mont Blanc to determine the exact site, Breuer’s immediate response was: ‘What a wonderful site! How do we avoid spoiling it?’

Flaine-marcel-breuer-architectural-review

Flaine-marcel-breuer-architectural-review

Source: Archives Centre d’Art de Flaine

Boissonnas and Breuer (sitting) surveyed the Flaine site together

Flaine-marcel-breuer-architectural-review

Flaine-marcel-breuer-architectural-review

Source: Syracuse University

Flaine-marcel-breuer-architectural-review

Flaine-marcel-breuer-architectural-review

Source: Syracuse University

In the architect’s eyes, ‘the horizontal linear quality of building levels – human creations – contrasts with the chaotic terrain of the mountain which testifies to the overwhelming power of nature’

The resort was built on three edges in front of a long limestone cliff wall that shapes the structure and morphology of the terrain, blending in with the colour of the rocks, ‘so the terrain does not need to be protected, because the buildings almost optically disappear due to the mimesis principle’, Breuer argued. He set an architectural counterpoint to the dominant geometry of the vertical limestone rocks through horizontal concrete bars, whose diamond-shaped facets brought variety and life to the long fronts of the concrete facades. ‘The entire composition is integrated into the magnificent and wild landscape of Flaine, which it partners and humanises.’

Although the architect proclaimed mimesis with the landscape’s morphology and geology, the ‘humanisation’ of nature was deemed necessary: an inevitable contradiction. Le Corbusier described the role of the architect as an ordonnateur of nature when he himself worked on an Alpine ski resort close to the town of Vars in the late 1930s: ‘He clears the inextricable shrubbery, reads with clarity, measures, disposes, commands’. By bringing ‘order’ to the wilderness and making it subservient to man, Breuer and Le Corbusier saw the landscape as ‘ennobled by architecture’.

Flaine-marcel-breuer-architectural-review

Flaine-marcel-breuer-architectural-review

Source: Archives Centre d’Art de Flaine

Cantilevering out over the rocks, Hôtel Le Flaine became a powerful symbol and the most published image of the ski resort

It took more than 10 years to finish Breuer’s entire masterplan of the ‘Utopian City of Modernism’ in the Alps. The most recognisable building is Hôtel Le Flaine, finished in 1969, a four-storey block whose front platform juts out over a rock ledge. At the centre of the village, the Forum is a rectangular square surrounded on three sides by shops, an art centre, and an ecumenical chapel on the edge of the forest. A series of low, elongated structures, the Flaine Front de Neige, nestles in front of the ski slope, followed nearly 100 metres further up along the edge of the terrain by Flaine Forêt, a clutch of residential buildings.

To stimulate tourist life outside the skiing season and attract a cultivated urban public, Eric Boissonnas and his wife Sylvie had a classical music concert hall built in 1986. Large-scale sculptures by Victor Vasarely and Jean Dubuffet were installed and one by Pablo Picasso was added in 1991. That same year, Hôtel Le Flaine was placed on the French Historic Monuments Survey. However, it did not prevent structural alterations in 1992 and 1993 after the Boissonnas family withdrew: the open ground floor area of the hotel was closed and the designer furniture sold, leaving little of the interior’s former flair. Hardly finished, it was already the beginning of its decline.

Flaine-marcel-breuer-architectural-review

Flaine-marcel-breuer-architectural-review

Source: Archives Centre d’Art de Flaine

Breuer designed some of the hotel’s furniture, including the open concrete fireplace in the lounge

Flaine-marcel-breuer-architectural-review

Flaine-marcel-breuer-architectural-review

Source: Archives Centre d’Art de Flaine

Eero Saarinen’s Tulip tables and chairs were also used

Renovations and extensions started a decade ago. The music academies, which had stopped their activities in 1997, were reactivated in 2011 and an exclusive apartment block designed by Christian Hauvette was completed behind the Forum in 2013. The wooden facade of his slightly inflected structure seems to surrender to Breuer’s modern stringency, and its concrete base makes reference to the Hungarian Modernist’s crystalline architecture. Regardless however, this new building appears shapeless and weak in comparison, failing to create a new character and unable to fight the great problem of decay.

‘Perriand criticised the comfort of a consumer society that sought something different in nature than nature itself’

An equally undignified fate was suffered by Les Arcs, conceived in 1967. Developer Roger Godino endeavoured to develop a modern ski resort that was to display neither urban ambience, like Flaine, nor ‘regionalistic decor’. An initial, vertical proposal was abandoned when Charlotte Perriand took over as planning coordinator and worked with the specially created group Atelier d’Architecture en Montagne. Perriand experienced ‘the infinite vastness of solitude and whiteness’ as an enthusiastic off-piste skier and saw in the mountains the ‘possibility of self-transcendence’. Asking themselves how to approach the pristine and continuously rising steep slope, architect Guy Rey-Millet’s idea was to avoid building on the plateau, ‘where the mountain pastures are’, and instead ‘position ourselves behind them to have a view of them; we’re not going to spoil this gorgeous place’.

Charlotte-perriand-les-arcs-architectural-review

Charlotte-perriand-les-arcs-architectural-review

Source: Charlotte Perriand Archive / ADAGP / DACS

Les Arcs was divided into three different locations in altitude with a distance of 200 metres between each part

Charlotte-perriand-les-arcs-architectural-review

Charlotte-perriand-les-arcs-architectural-review

Source: Charlotte Perriand Archive / ADAGP / DACS

Perriand, the daughter of a Savoyard, was an avid skier and hiker herself

Charlotte-perriand-les-arcs-architectural-review

Charlotte-perriand-les-arcs-architectural-review

Source: Charlotte Perriand Archive / ADAGP / DACS

La Cascade, designed by Charlotte Perriand and Atelier d’Architecture en Montagne, under construction in 1968

The first and lowest location, Arc 1600 (situated along the 1,600m contour line) had a capacity of 4,200 beds, with parking below to protect the tourists from noise while giving priority to pedestrians. Perriand was looking for ways to orient the view of her three-to four-storey structures towards the mountains so that no other apartment block would spoil the desired recuperative effect, as demanded by CIAM in 1937. After only one year of construction, Arc 1600 was inaugurated at Christmas 1969. Godino introduced a new model originating from Switzerland, the ‘para-hotel’: rental apartments offering hotel comfort, including a reception, bed linen and cleaning, for higher profit margins.

For Arc 1800, everything had to be optimised: the size of the studios, construction time and costs. Apartments were much smaller and the living spaces became ever longer and narrower (10.4m deep and 2.96m wide) to avoid expensive facade costs – ‘one had to condense and find the smallest possible grid compatible with as much depth as possible’, remembered Perriand. Profitability determined design and construction; 18,000 beds were housed here in buildings up to 13 storeys high. Inspired by shipbuilding, she opted for prefabricated elements to meet the tight budget and deadline – seven months ‘from the concrete down to the teaspoon’.

Charlotte-perriand-les-arcs-architectural-review

Charlotte-perriand-les-arcs-architectural-review

Source: Charlotte Perriand Archive / ADAGP / DACS

Charlotte-perriand-les-arcs-architectural-review

Charlotte-perriand-les-arcs-architectural-review

Source: Charlotte Perriand Archive / ADAGP / DACS

Kitchens and bathrooms were made of two-piece polyester bowls incorporating wash basins, bathtubs, mirrors, toilets, sinks and cooktops. ‘It was about “sublimating” the organisation of the living space and the visual space of a cell with four beds and less than 30 m²: a modern programme and a true challenge.’ Densification instead of scattering, unrestricted panoramic views, and maximum use of sunlight were the most important design criteria, which led to the emergence of new architectural typologies, as illustrated by the dramatic La Cascade (‘the waterfall’, 1968-69), with its stepping terraces on the south side and slanting facade on the north. 

Based on the idea of complete comfort, the concept of the station intégrée (resort town) was to be perfected, starting with direct access from the apartments to the slopes and a wide range of public facilities, comprising a shopping centre, crèche, medical centre, ski schools, as well as a 40-hectare golf course, 40 tennis courts, a music and dance academy, a weaving school and even seminary facilities to make the resort attractive in the summer months. Les Arcs was deliberately multitasking in order to be as desirable and as profitable as possible.

Charlotte-perriand-les-arcs-architectural-review

Charlotte-perriand-les-arcs-architectural-review

Source: Charlotte Perriand Archive / ADAGP / DACS

Starting with Arc 1600, Perriand sought to integrate the architecture into the mountain slopes and created unique buildings, such as Versant Sud

Charlotte-perriand-les-arcs-architectural-review

Charlotte-perriand-les-arcs-architectural-review

Source: Charlotte Perriand Archive / ADAGP / DACS

The balconies of La Cascade at Arc 1600 were raised by 400mm to avoid blocking downstairs neighbours’ views and sunlight

Charlotte-perriand-les-arcs-architectural-review

Charlotte-perriand-les-arcs-architectural-review

Source: Charlotte Perriand Archive / ADAGP / DACS

Slate roofing, larch cladding and stone masonry in the buildings’ base were chosen to help integrate the architecture into the landscape.

When the third construction phase began at the foot of the glacier with Arc 2000, Perriand withdrew from the project. Jean Prouvé’s ideas had been dismissed in favour of more profitable solutions, and she resignedly wrote: ‘This place, which had been originally sublime, was completely destroyed’. In 1998, aged 95, she wrote critically in her memoir about her ambitious plan to share her beloved mountains with the masses, whom she called ‘robotised hordes’. She criticised the comfort of a consumer society that sought something different in nature than nature itself.

Charlotte-perriand-les-arcs-architectural-review

Charlotte-perriand-les-arcs-architectural-review

Source: Charlotte Perriand Archive / ADAGP / DACS

Rounded corners allow comfort and fluid movements despite the tightness of the apartment

Beyond the physical ageing of the 1960s Alpine resorts, it is the former visions of a bygone era which are outdated. Nobody wants to be squeezed into an urban structure imposed on nature when on holiday. Developed in the interwar period, the purpose of these resorts was linked to the importance of the population’s psychic and physical health. Today, the climate crisis has forced us to realise that the domination of nature is a rather dubious concept and we are looking for alternative solutions to provide for our social and health needs.

Meanwhile, the huge resorts remain empty most of the year, like the forgotten film set of a creepy horror movie. Climate breakdown will exacerbate this problem: with less snow, they will become even less attractive. Their transformation will be a difficult task. And yet, as temperatures continue to rise, the cooler mountain regions will become an essential refuge. Could we transform these resorts into temporary alternatives to cities? Could we make them self-sufficient? There are 30,000 beds in Les Arcs. If these structures need to accommodate people for longer periods than just holidays, they must be fundamentally adapted in order to correspond to new needs.

Charlotte-perriand-les-arcs-architectural-review

Charlotte-perriand-les-arcs-architectural-review

Source: Charlotte Perriand Archive / ADAGP / DACS

Pictured with developer Roger Godino and architect Gaston Regairaz, 87-year-old Perriand looks down at Les Arcs

Charlotte-perriand-les-arcs-architectural-review

Charlotte-perriand-les-arcs-architectural-review

Source: Charlotte Perriand Archive / ADAGP / DACS

She dedicated 20 years of her life to this colossal project, but ended up disappointed with the direction it took. At Arc 1800, housing units were much smaller to reduce rental costs, with profitability determining density

These pertinent issues raise the question of ownership in a fundamental way. Since the state gave the land to private developers, the apartments are in joint ownership – they are in approximately 7,500 individual hands – making a radical transformation for common use nearly impossible. CIAM’s demand that the state retain ownership was certainly the most important point of the Charter, but it was the only one that was not respected. This is the greatest lesson we can learn from these totally private stations intégrées, which have received, almost for nothing, the most valuable common ground, that of a still untouched nature: a fatal and nearly irreversible decision.

Lead image: M. de Saussure ascending Mont Blanc, 1785. Courtesy of Christian von Mechel

This piece is featured in the AR May 2020 issue on Tourism – click here to buy your copy today