EDGE OF REASON
Condé Nast Traveller India|November 2021 - December 2021 - January 2022
There is another side of skiing in France beyond the resorts of Chamonix and Megève. Toby Skinner revisits the 1960s Brutalist ski towns of Avoriaz and Flaine and finds a design ethos that was way ahead of its time.
Toby Skinner
At the end of a winding road from Morzine, the first view of Avoriaz is of the red cedar buildings of La Falaise, perched on the edge of a monumental cliff like some warped cruise ship. The resort itself resembles a retro-futuristic parallel universe. Clanking quasi-industrial lifts navigate the surface of the high-rises, all weird angles and portholes caked in snow, disgorging skiers into long external corridors. Horses and carts jingle across the snow. On the afternoon runs of the Dromonts ski lift, half the skiers have groceries from the Sherpa supermarket or rounds of Reblochon from the Aux Delices d’Antan. Life here is on skis.

I first visited with my parents aged around nine, staying in a poky Pierre & Vacances apartment with stucco walls like miniature mountainscapes, then again just after university, when it looked even stranger in the 2am half-light after a night of absinthe and enforced table dancing to Ricky Martin at Le Shooters. Despite that, I’m fond of the place, partly because it works seamlessly, with everywhere in the car-free town easily reachable on skis, and because the skiing is great—from sweeping powder fields to the dizziest of red runs. But more than that, I love its egalitarian hedonism and madcap creativity; the completeness of its faintly surreal vision, from the needle-like church/tourist office to the tropical-kitsch Aquariaz water park.

Until relatively recently, this wasn’t quite the accepted view of Avoriaz—or the other French “ski factories”, including Flaine, Tignes, Les Arcs, Val Thorens and Les Menuires, all purpose-built in the 1960s as part of the government’s Plan Neige, an attempt to help kickstart the country’s economy. Whereas earlier such resorts had mostly been conceived with chocolate-box Alpine aesthetics, the Sixties generation of high-altitude, ski-in and ski-out towns were unashamedly modern and mass-market. For some, they aged quickly and badly. The French tended to dismiss them as blocky affronts, while British skiers rechristened grey, concrete Flaine as “Phlegm”.

But, while no one has ever doubted the quality of the skiing, there’s been a creeping reappraisal of their design over the past decade, whether the result of cyclical tastes or just mid-century nostalgia. As stark concrete has crept back into vogue, so has Flaine, which was masterminded by legendary Bauhaus architect Marcel Breuer, and is dotted with Picasso, Dubuffet and Vasarely sculptures. And designers have begun hailing the once-derided Les Arcs, where Corbusier disciple and design pioneer Charlotte Perriand led a team that built sloping, cantilevered buildings that meld into the landscape. This was a time, after all, when serious architects, designers and town planners were effectively given open-ended briefs to design whole new towns, in the process often expressing a new kind of post-war thinking about democratic social spaces and the environment.

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