Text by Alastair Philip Wiper
The received wisdom about beauty and ski resorts is that you want a traditional alpine village: snow-capped chalets, cosy hearths and the rest. The purpose-built “ski factories” that appeared across France in the 1960s – the likes of Tignes, Les Arcs and Val Thorens – are routinely dismissed as ugly.
Yet Avoriaz, a resort 1,800m above sea level near Morzine, has inspired me more than any other. I first went there as a 23-year-old ski bum, and was struck not just by its innovative design – the round doorways, the public lifts that connect the whole town, the way every building drops you off on a slope – but by the spookiness of it. Something about it recalled The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, a classic 1920 silent horror movie directed by the Austrian Robert Wiene, in which the set design enhanced the eeriness. I’ve been going back ever since, trying to capture the mysterious, enchanting side of Avoriaz that exists in my imagination.
Avoriaz was first envisioned by 1960 Olympic downhill ski champion Jean Vuarnet, who had been one of a hardy group of skiers that hiked up to the desolate plateau, perched on a cliff overlooking Morzine. Where there were only goat herders at the time, Vuarnet imagined a ski resort and approached Gérard Brémond, the son of a rich industrialist and part of France’s 1960s jet-set. The flamboyant Brémond decided Avoriaz would be the “Saint Tropez de Neige”, but he also wanted to create a place where the architecture would complement nature.
He explained at the time: “When you go on holiday you hope to find a different context to the one in which you live daily. In Avoriaz there will be no cars. The heating will be electric, rather than fuel powered, therefore non-polluting. The roads will serve as ski runs. The architecture will integrate itself into the landscape but will be new and groundbreaking. It is not necessary to explain how these proposals will cause an outcry!”
Brémond hired the young, recently graduated architect Jacques Labro to assemble a team and, with Vuarnet, this unlikely trio of young men set about designing Avoriaz. “Gérard’s father gave the project to his son kind of as a plaything,” remembers Labro. “I never » had a contract for more than one building at a time, and it was just a handful of young guys deciding everything. I don’t think you’d be able to do it the same way today.”
Brémond, Labro and the team of architects were all jazz fans, and Labro remembers they were “like a band. One guy would be the bass player – he would do the basic drawings, lay down the foundations. Then each architect would come and ‘play’ on top of that, have their own solo, put their own character and history on top of that. It was like improvisation; we tried to be instinctive.”
Still, there was a clear vision. “The whole idea of no cars was very very important to the concept of Avoriaz,” says Labro of the design, in which the whole town is linked by public lifts, meaning you can ski everywhere. “It is still completely unique in the world for a skiing resort I think. It was Jean Vuarnet who pushed the idea that you had to be able to ski in and out of every building, and this was very controversial at that time because the car was king – it was almost a symbol of France. But the idea of parking your car at the bottom of the cliff, and then leaving the ground and flying through the air in a cable car, and arriving in a new, magical place where everything looks different, like another world, was very important to us.”
Avoriaz’ first hotel, the angular Hotel des Dromonts, opened in 1966, and managed to look futuristic while also blending in with the surrounding mountains. Its red cedar exterior set the tone for the whole resort.
The French writer, Régine Deforges, known as the “high priestess of French erotic literature”, was hired to install the library, and remembers arriving on a “squeaking cable car” on Christmas Eve, 1966. She wrote: “What a reward to find an immense white area limited only by the sky, the steep slopes cheered up by the presence of fir trees and the cliff face – a cliff like the one which plunges into the north sea or the Channel. I anticipated the sound of the sea, but all around me was silence – a unique, pure silence, which made one respectful of such virgin beauty. A horse-drawn carriage transported me away and the night swallowed up the mountains. Looking up I saw a dark mass spotted here and there with lights, a chateau from a dark novel: it was the Hotel des Dromonts.”
Escapism was central to everything the young town planners did, says Labro. “We even brought in reindeer from Lapland to pull the sleds, to add to the magical feeling – but it ended up being a bit of a disaster because you cannot control a reindeer like a horse. They get scared very easily. They lasted for three years and then we had to get horses instead.”
While the Hotel des Dromonts was a swanky hotel for the rich and famous, over time Avoriaz became more egalitarian, with the team building smaller, cheaper apartments, especially after Brémond inaugurated the Fantastic Film Festival in 1973, a sci-fi and horror fest which drew everyone from Steven Spielberg to David Lynch and David Cronenberg until it moved to Gérardmer in 1994. The beginnings of Brémond’s Pierre et Vacances, which is now France’s biggest holiday apartment rental company, came about through leasing out Avoriaz apartments.
“We needed to make this a real town,” says Labro. “The baker needed to keep his business going, so we needed to create some mass accommodation that could get people in and out, and as many as possible. In the 1970s, a lot of people didn’t have big budgets to go skiing, and we had to cater for them too. But the idea is the architecture is the same whether the apartment is big or small.”
If you go to most Avoriaz apartments today, you’ll find numerous quirky design touches, like the circular bathroom doors that look like a boat or a 1970s spaceship. “The reason for the doors was an architectural one,” says Labro. “We could only build in the summer, so we would have to get the whole building finished within a few months. We built the shell of the building, with lots of empty boxes, and then we had the whole apartments prefabricated and we lifted them in with a crane. The doors had to be that shape so they wouldn’t go wonky or bend when we lifted them into the apartment.”
What’s amazing is that the design aesthetic has endured, even as the town has adapted and more architects have worked on it. Go to one of the smart, new apartments, like L’Amara, or the new Aquariaz water park, both designed by Labro and his current architectural partner Simon Cloutier, and it all blends in, just as the buildings blend with the mountains. Labro and his team of architects have won prestigious awards, including a 2003 prize from the Ministry of Culture for creating one of the great heritage achievements of the 20th century – yet perhaps their greatest legacy is that, while much 1960s architecture has become reviled, no one wants to mess with Avoriaz.
“The Romans talked about genius loci,” says Labro. “Understanding the genius of the landscape that is there already and working with it.” The same might now be said about the buildings themselves.
Alastair Philip Wiper’s exhibition, Avoriaz: The Enchanting Village, is at Bygningskulturens Hus, 111 Borgegade, Copenhagen, until the end of March
Avoriaz is 90 minutes’ drive from Geneva; Norwegian flies to Geneva from Oslo, Copenhagen and Stockholm. Book flights, a hotel and a rental car at norwegian.com