Beyond Brutal First Impressions: My Fine Romance in Flaine
On our recent tour of the Alps we have stayed in a clutch of characterful ski resorts. Many of the high altitude French resorts were purpose built for skiing and look very different to the chalet studded villages of Austria and Switzerland. But one caught my attention in other ways. Flaine is a third generation resort built in the 1960’s. Flaine architecture was designed to be functional rather than cute, with concrete blocks and lift infrastructure dominating. But that’s where comparisons with its high mountain siblings end, because Flaine isn’t just a ski resort. If you look beyond the concrete facade, it’s a living art gallery and Flaine architecture is a vision of Bauhaus utopia. If Flaine were a person, his brutal appearance would shock anyone. But as he revealed his hopes and dreams to me he somehow won me over. As I left him behind, I wrote this love letter to my holiday romance….
Flaine, it is safe to say it wasn’t love at first sight between you and I. That first night we met, as the moon rose over the high peaks and threw soft light on your angular shoulders, I saw only a heart of stone inside a concrete shell. As holiday romances go, it didn’t look very promising. Or so I thought. But then first impressions are unreliable and love works in unexpected ways. One week was all it took for you to capture my heart.
You’re an unlikely match for a girl like me
It was always unlikely. You have the kind of personality that mothers warn their daughters about. Brutal and unforgiving. Uncompromising, and demanding respect. You are so sure of yourself and who you are. On first impression your default is to shock, and you don’t care what people think. And in return people love or hate you. And sometimes both.
Why are you so brutal?
It was no accident that you are all hard edges and attitude. Your personality was formed long before you were born, by two visionary people. In the 1950’s Sylvie and Eric Boissonnas were a successful power couple, interested in avant-garde design and modern architecture. They thought they could create something special in the heart of a pristine valley in the Haute Savoie. They saw something in the curve of the mountain and the fall of the snow and believed they could shape it into an artistic force; something that people could enjoy and connect with. They saw emptiness and wanted to create life. In a place where unfeeling nature ruled, they saw the potential for the human spirit to dominate and for your spirit to emerge.
But they didn’t want a child of the sixties. Their vision for you was modern, even futuristic. And they had friends with a similar philosophy, a talent for invention and a passion for modern architecture. They selected one of the greatest architects of the 20th century Marcel Breuer to help design and shape you. He was a former Master at Bauhaus and had exciting ideas about what you might look like and how you might grow.
You were wanted and adored
You were born in 1969. You weren’t quite ready but they brought you into the world anyway. And people came to see you. And talked about you. They called you the future. In fact you were third generation – close relatives like Chamonix and Samoens were already popular, but there was no one quite like you. While they were born of snow, you were designed with the sun in mind. You were fashioned to take the light and shape it. In the chaos of nature, your concrete heart meant you were stable. You reflected the mountain but were not at one with it.
You were a flash in time
You were function over form. But you were also creative and artistic. Sylvie was responsible for that. She dressed you in Picasso and Dubuffet. She brought famous artists to decorate and educate you. She invited musicians from over the world to come and play with you.
Like me you were a child of the late sixties and seventies. But unlike me, over time you were unable to adapt. Concrete cannot easily change its form. While you had a youthful bloom and helped revolutionise Alpine skiing, the fashionable crowd moved on and you became just another resort. Just another French ski dude to hang out within the Grand Massif. Cheap to visit but not as glamorous as the younger set, or as attractive as your more traditional and graceful elders. Like me you have lived for almost half a century. And like me it has started to show in the lines on your face.
What happened to you, child of the future?
And there you were, still dominating the landscape when I arrived. That chilly Saturday night I didn’t see a child of the future stuck in the past – I saw a deserted rabbit warren of a shopping centre and some boxy looking lifts.
But the morning after, something happened. In the weak sunshine I saw diamonds in your clothes. I saw beyond the concrete exterior into the real you. A peaceful traffic free idyll where I could let my children run free with without fear of being hit by a car. Sitting under your Picasso sculpture La Tete de Feme (one cool accessory!) I followed its gaze. The steep slope of the tree lined bowl gave way to the black and white mushrooming Alpine forests of Dubuffet’s monumental sculpture Le Boqueteau des 7 arbres and in Flaine Forum at that moment, instead of a shopping centre I saw a living art gallery. A man in a tall hat showed toddlers how to blow giant bubbles which drifted on the clear mountain air past your imposing towers, buffed by the notes of violins, clarinets and pianos. The bell of a grey squat church at your centre rang out a quirkily incorrect time. And I started to feel very fond of you.
Getting to know you
Over a week I got to know you. And I met others who had fallen for you too. Families who played mini golf and took high rope adventures courtesy of your free Summer Pass which bought them bonding time and escape from their devices. Manu, our guide, who runs a restaurant on your broad shoulders was a huge defender of your reputation and attempted to put your history in context with the other resorts. Gilbert Coquard, the Librarian in the Cultural Centre that Sylvie established all that time ago, wrote not just a love letter to you but a book about you. He seems to love you with a passion, and says you are not to be written off. Over time your image and style have come to be appreciated, with heritage orders (from the French National Inventory of Historic Monuments) on your more individual features like former hotel Le Flaine that stretches out into the precipice, defying the laws of nature and gravity. You are again fashionable with the ski crowds and travel press with the refurbishment of boutique art Hotel Terminal Neige Le Totum.
“Maybe because the Totem is doing very well I think maybe someone will do the same thing with the Hotel Le Flaine,” Gilbert speculates. New CGH apartments Residence Le Centaure have started to bring people back with their sympathetic design partly made from curved metal and glass and partly using the same stone as your original buildings. “This new building is very interesting. I think it is completely integrated in Flaine. It speaks the same language and is real architecture,” says Gilbert.
Peter Jules, who manages the Residence is also the village fireman. He gave us a tour of his workplace and told us of his hopes for his young family to thrive alongside you – curiously you have only around a hundred permanent residents.
You are music to my ears
Your soul was always flooded with music. It was a passion of the couple who brought you into the world. At least two prestigious music schools offer free concerts throughout summer in your stylised Auditorium, and artists from art schools in Annecy (more than 70 kms away) have continued to use you as inspiration. People appreciate your form and are loving you for what you are, not hating you for what you are not.
Is there a future for us?
Like beauty and the beast, I saw into your heart that week and what I saw made me happy. And as I look back at my brief romance with you, I remember your principles, your surety, your sense of who you are. I know that as I travel I am unlikely to meet anyone quite like you. And I wonder, could our relationship develop from a one week stand into something more meaningful? Winter is on its way, and I’ve heard you look your best in when a white fluffy coat softens your hard edges.
I hope we will meet again. Until then Flaine, lots of love. A brutal and enduring French spirit, you surprisingly captured my heart.