Avoriaz: Creative peak

29 Nov 2019 by Tom Otley
Avoriaz ski resort. Credit: Peplow/iStock

High-altitude ski resort Avoriaz is also a dream destination for architecture buffs 

Heavy snow had been forecast, and, as our minivan climbed up the mountain from Morzine, the weather grew worse, the van’s tyres struggling to cope as a thick blanket settled on the sides of the winding road, turning it into a single track. At each hairpin bend we’d see the lights of other vehicles returning from the resort, their wheels struggling to brake while we tried to maintain forward momentum, not wanting to wheel-spin and then be stuck on the mountainside.

Eventually we reached the resort, although all we could see through the whiteout were some lights around the edge of what looked like a large garage. The last part of the journey was in a kind of portacabin on top of a tractor. Avoriaz is famous for being car-free, but in weather like this, walking was impossible. We climbed up a ladder and only a few minutes later were at our accommodation, shielding our faces from the whirling snow and feeling with our feet to find the edge of steps up to the front door. Welcome to Avoriaz 1,800m.

Higher ground

The next morning, we could see that more than a metre of fresh snow had fallen overnight. Sunrise was a thin line of red on the horizon at first, then golden as it illuminated a moon-like landscape. Huge snowdrifts had enveloped the entire resort overnight, making it hard to distinguish the buildings from the rest of the landscape.

Trudging through thick snow at this altitude, you are quickly out of breath, so having a ski-hire shop close to the chalet is a big advantage, as is a chalet that is ski-in and ski-out, not easy to achieve when it is also a new-build. The Chalet Beluga was constructed in 2018 only a few metres from the top of the Prodains lift, ski school meeting point and piste-side bars and restaurants. The challenge is a double one when a resort has such strict building laws as at Avoriaz, but then that has been the case since it was first planned, with natural materials and design important not only to the construction of the buildings but also their height and shape as they emerge from the landscape.

Chalet Beluga

This French resort, and several like it, date from the early 1960s, when a lack of snow was causing trouble for moderate-altitude resorts. A “Plan Neige” was formulated to take into effect in 1964. In total, 20 development sites were identified for “high-altitude ski resorts that must be rational, functional and effective”, but unfortunately it also meant that they had to be planned with access for cars and plenty of parking. Car was king, and President Pompidou declared: “We French love our cars, so our cities must welcome them.”

The sites had various levels of success, but some retained a purity of conception, being built quickly and under the control of either one architect or group of architects. In Flaine, for instance, the vision was that of Bauhaus master Marcel Breuer (also responsible for the UNESCO headquarters in Paris and the Whitney Museum in New York), while Les Arcs was the masterpiece of Charlotte Perriand. For Avoriaz, it was Jacques Labro.

Peak of design

The resort was to be built on a plateau in a region of summer Alpine pastures that were deserted in winter, although the slopes of the Chavanette and Hauts-Forts summits towering above the Avoréaz plateau were tempting to the first Alpine skiers such as Jean Vuarnet, who was born in Morzine and became the Olympic Downhill champion in 1960.

When Vuarnet returned to Morzine, his aim was to make the slopes of Avoréaz accessible to all skiers, creating a purpose-built resort. It would be a challenge, however. As Vuarnet later recalled: “For the people of Morzine, it was like going to Alaska.” He needed a partner in real estate who would have the necessary expertise and financial solidity to cope with such an investment, and he found it when Robert Brémond suggested that his son, Gérard – who would later become founder and chairman of the Pierre et Vacances group – manage the operation. Gérard Brémond called on a young team straight out of architect school – Jacques Labro, Jean-Jacques Orzoni and Jean-Marc Roques (Roques was still a fine arts student at the time). Together, they came up with a new concept in ski resorts, as outlined by Gérard: “When people go on holiday, they’re looking for a change of scene to get away from the daily grind.” Therefore, no cars would be allowed in Avoriaz.

For its time, it was revolutionary. The heating would be electric, which didn’t pollute like oil heating, and the streets would become ski slopes. The architectural design would be innovative, yet modest, and blend with the surroundings. The municipality of Morzine signed an agreement authorising the developer to create the skiing areas and operate the lifts. The Tête aux Boeufs slope had one chairlift and one drag lift. The “Pas du Lac” featured the resort’s only restaurant and bar, which was also the reception area, and the backroom served as a dormitory for members of the ski patrol. Jean Vuarnet was proud of his new refuge: “At last I was to find out if skiers would be interested in this spectacular site,” he said.

You can still see the first projects that were built – the residences Séquoia and Mélèzes and the Hôtel des Dromonts, all of which won the Prix de l’Équerre d’Argent architecture prize in 1968. Together the architects founded the Collectif Architecture and continued to develop an approach based on reconciling architecture and nature.

Modern love

There have been ups and downs for the resort in the intervening 50 years, but recently it has begun a journey to take itself back upmarket, as demonstrated by the Hôtel des Dromonts, which has never looked better, having been bought in 2014 by the Sibuet family, well-known for their ground-breaking work in Megève.

Even if you are staying elsewhere, a drink in the bar or a meal in one of its restaurants is a fabulous way to enjoy a style of interior design completely of its period. The modernist look includes tangerine capsule-style round chairs by Eero Aarnio, Charles and Ray Eames chairs, tables and seats by Charlotte Perriand and Pierre Margara wood sculptures. Local Morzine slate features in all of the bathrooms (as well as on the roof), while the fabrics used for the curtains, armchairs and sofas are bespoke creations in tangerine and purple, turquoise and violet, and camel. It felt very snug the afternoon we were there, although having snowdrifts piled up against the windows also helped; it was like being snowed in for the winter with a fully stocked bar and a barman speaking enough English to keep serving the drinks and snacks until it was time for bed.

What’s also impressive is that the resort is expanding, but still according to its founding principles. The Chalet Beluga and its sister properties are examples of that. Speaking with Simon Cloutier of Atelier d’Architecture d’Avoriaz, who was responsible for the design, the care that has gone into every aspect of the new developments is obvious. Residences such as the Alhena apartments have no heating, but instead rely on recycling air and insulation.

“The unique aspect of Avoriaz is the integration of the landscape,” Cloutier tells me one afternoon over après-ski drinks. “The major work of Labro was to fit the buildings into [the landscape] in a sympathetic way.”

He explains that the Hôtel des Dromonts was built first because “it was the worst location in Avoriaz as it doesn’t have the view or the sun. Labro said we have to build here or no one ever will.” It is designed “around the idea that you arrive into a cave because you have no view; it’s an introspective hotel”.

Cloutier says that for Avoriaz, “there was a masterplan from the beginning, and we still are not very far from this. Labro was a genius for very big scale.” It’s more than sticking to the plan, however – innovation continues. The original electric heating for the resort is now supplemented by a wood-pellet burning plant that supplies heat and electricity around the new buildings.

Time for fun

If this makes it all sound a little worthy, you’ll be pleased to hear that the well-known bar and restaurant chain La Folie Douce (lafoliedouce.com) opened an outpost in Avoriaz in 2018, and the antics are just as you would expect (you can read about them in our December 2018-January 2019 feature on Val d’Isère – businesstraveller.com/tag/ski-resorts). Avoriaz has more than enough late-night venues for all but the most hardcore party animal.

It is also part of the Portes du Soleil ski area with 600km of pistes, and has everything from easy blue runs through to some challenging blacks and plenty of off-piste. Le Pas de Chavanette, also known as the “Mur Suisse”, or “Swiss Wall”, is one of the best known. I watched people skiing it, then went to have a drink. Then, of course, there’s the joy of having roads that act like pistes and being able to ski in and out of the resort, something tired legs love in the late afternoon.

No matter how much you love skiing, though, your memories often return to the resort itself, and Avoriaz is easily the most distinctive and, when covered in snow, one of the most beautiful, certainly of the high-level resorts. The absence of cars, and the use of horse-drawn sleighs (and snow cats) to ferry people’s luggage around, also adds to the charm.

A seven-night stay at Chalet Beluga with VIP Ski costs from £1,349 per person based on two people sharing a room on a chalet board basis, and includes return London Gatwick flights and transfers. VIP Ski’s Platinum Service (an extra £300-£500 depending on travel date) includes bespoke menus with matched wines, a complimentary minibar, valet parking at the departure airport and a private taxi transfer to the resort. Tel +44 (0)20 8875 1957; vip-chalets.com

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