Cool Concrete

Bringing new chic to brutalist Flaine

ECFlaine_1Late in 1960, the Hungarian architect Marcel Breuer flew in a helicopter up an empty valley just to the north of Mont Blanc. He was fresh from the success of a string of high-profile buildings in Europe and the US, including the Unesco headquarters in Paris, but below him now, on a small plateau where the dark forest gave way to the open mountainside, was the setting for what promised to be his most remarkable commission yet. “What a wonderful site!” he exclaimed. “How do we avoid spoiling it?”

The brief would be a dream for any architect – to design a complete ski resort from scratch, with hotels, restaurants and apartments, on a pristine site of staggering beauty. For Breuer it offered the chance to put into practice the theories developed as a student, then teacher, at Germany’s Bauhaus school. In Flaine, his new resort, form would follow function, with buildings made from precast concrete rather than the wood and stone of the local vernacular. And there would be a complete unity of style, right down to the streetlights, fireplaces and furniture he personally designed – even the choice of font for the signs.

Perhaps best of all was that the fabulously wealthy clients, Éric, Remi and Sylvie Boissonnas, were more concerned with creating a sort of alpine utopia than anything as mundane as money. The key ambition, according to Éric Boissonnas, was to create “a prototype for urban planning, architecture and design, the immediate profitability of which would be less important than aesthetic choices and respect for the environment.”

Flaine officially opened on January 17 1969. With pistes designed by former world champion Émile Allais, which started on the doorstep, as well as outdoor sculpture by Dubuffet, Picasso and Vasarely, over the next decade it became one of Europe’s most fashion­able resorts. Not longer after, though, its appeal began to wane, the architecture that once seemed so futuristic now reminding visitors of utilitarian public-sector buildings or Soviet housing blocks. When I first visited, in the late 1980s, my mother grumpily called it “the Woking of the Alps” – a reference to the multistorey car parks of our ugly English hometown.

Gradually Flaine became known as a budget family resort and the once glamorous hotels were converted into apartment buildings or youth hostels. When new satellite developments were added (Le Hameau de Flaine in the 1990s, and Flaine Montsoleil in 2008) they rejected Breuer’s brutalist style entirely, instead retreating into generic chalet clichés. Meanwhile, in the main square where Breuer hoped that all the shops would share a common visual identity free from intrusive advertising, a big green sign shouts “Monster Burger”.

So it is a surprise to find Flaine selected as the location for the latest opening from Maisons et Hotels Sibuet, one of France’s most celebrated hotel companies. The family-owned group is based in Megève – a resort founded in the 1920s by Baroness Noémie de Rothschild to be an exclusive French rival to St Moritz, and which could scarcely be more different to functional, egalitarian Flaine. Sibuet, too, seems an odd fit – it made its name with Les Fermes de Marie, a luxurious conversion of an ancient chalet in Megève, full of fluffy cushions and sumptuous fabrics, then went on to open five-star properties in Provence, Lyon and St Tropez. “For 30 years we have been doing very luxurious hotels, but I think there’s a new generation asking for something else,” says Jocelyne Sibuet, who founded the company with her husband in 1981. “And Flaine itself is moving, evolving; it’s like fashion, everything turns.”

In fact, the driving force behind the new three-star Flaine hotel is not Mme Sibuet but her children, Nicolas, 32 and Marie, 28. Inspired by the hip city- centre hotel brands Ace, Mama Shelter and Generator, they devised what the group calls “une nouvelle vision de l’hôtellerie”. In practice, this means comfortable but basic and affordable rooms, but a large lobby, bar and restaurant area in which to socialise.

In August, Sibuet took over Le Totem, which had been Flaine’s last hotel when it shut down three years earlier. A frantic renovation and refurbishment followed and the 96-room hotel opened on December 18. I visited on opening night, but already the “vision” seemed fully realised. A young, fashionably dressed crowd were drinking cocktails on low sofas by the Breuer-designed fireplace.

The lobby is dominated not by reception desks but by the in house ski rental shop (wonderfully friendly, but then I was their first customer). Beyond that is the long, open-plan lounge and restaurant, one side with floor-to-ceiling windows looking out on to forest and mountainside. The furniture is mid-century vintage; colourful woollen fabrics draw inspiration from Navajo designs (“we wanted to add some warmth to the Bauhaus,” says Jocelyne Sibuet). There are retro arcade games, exposed concrete pillars and walls, and some of Breuer’s classic Wassily chairs, the black leather straps re-covered in native American fabrics. Staff wear jeans and skinny white T-shirts saying “Skiers are better lovers” (which probably sounds better if English isn’t your first language).

Rather than an à la carte restaurant, there is a nightly buffet, encouraging guests to wander about, help themselves and mingle. On my visit it wasn’t quite up to speed – I was served a delicious pork casserole with a slice of pizza on the side – but you have to respect the unwavering commitment to the concept.

Flaine is home to some amazing art, including “Le Boqueteau” by Jean Dubuffet, shown here

Outside, Flaine, much of it now a protected “historical monument”, remains remarkably unchanged – ready to be discovered by a new audience raised on the retro aesthetics of Mad Men. The diamond shapes within Breuer’s concrete façades and the raised window frames create shadows that animate the buildings as the sun moves overhead.

Even those who still struggle to get along with a concrete resort cannot fault the skiing. Éric Boissonnas chose this site, and almost bankrupted the company building the access road to it, because of its ideal setting, at the bottom of a high, mainly north-facing bowl. In mid-December, when many alpine resorts were closed because of lack of snow, 90 per cent of Flaine’s pistes were open. This weekend, the snow at the top is more than two metres deep.

Now the Sibuets are focused on rolling out their concept, under a new brand, Terminal Neige. Aesthetics aside, the most exciting aspect of the plan is their willingness to take on unconventional spaces, which must come with greater financial risk. Next up is an ambitious conversion of a disused cable-car station in Avoriaz, and a refurbishment of the 19th-century hotel at the summit of the Montenvers railway, high above Chamonix. “We want to have a challenge, to do something different – we try to be pioneers,” says Sibuet. Breuer would surely approve.

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