An Insider’s Tour of the French Ski Resort Charlotte Perriand Designed in the 1960s and 70s

From the late 1960s through the 1980s, Charlotte Perriand designed several residential and recreational buildings in France’s Savoy Alps, inspired by the area’s traditional mountain architecture. The monumental project — Les Arcs — became one of the largest ski resorts in the world, and I had the opportunity to spend a few days there last July, documenting its interiors and exteriors.

To offer some background, French designer Charlotte Perriand is, of course, best known for her progressive furniture designs, on which she collaborated with Le Corbusier and his cousin Pierre Jeanneret in the 1920s and 1930s. Her experiments with steel tubular structures defined the visionary approach of interwar modernists who, through cutting-edge materials, sought to create a new world for people living in the machine era. During the 1940s, though, she shifted away from strict modernism and more toward organic forms and traditional materials. Her famed trip to Japan just before the outbreak of WWII, where she was sent by the French government as an industry and craft consultant, helped redefine her style.DSC06213 DSC06671 DSC06436

This post-war era of her work culminated in the ambitious Les Arcs project. Perriand loved the mountains, and since her youth had extensively visited the Savoy Alps to hike and ski. Even before the war, she’d designed an aluminum prefab mountain shelter she called The Refuge Tonneau; after that, she worked on several interior and architecture projects in the Alps, including her own chalet in Meribel, completed in 1961. Accepting the Les Arcs project was a natural move for the designer, who hoped the new resort would help make mountain entertainment and sports available to the general public.

The idea for Les Arcs was born in the heads of the enlightened developer Roger Godin and the mountain leader Robert Blanc. Perriand was initially commissioned to build a hotel at an altitude of 1600 meters, the first building in the area and the start of a new independent ski resort called Arc 1600. With a democratic approach in mind, she designed a second building, called La Cascade, in collaboration with fellow architect Guy Rey-Millet. Completed in 1969, it’s a revolutionary building that’s considered to mark the beginning of the mass interest in alpine skiing. Perriand was very sensitive to the surrounding landscape — the cascading form of the building naturally cuts into the site’s slope, and its form merges with both the surrounding hills and the traditional alpine architecture in the immediate vicinity.DSC06597 DSC06543 DSC06611

In the La Cascade’s interior, Perriand applied her typical design based primarily on working with local materials, inspired in part by Japanese design. Today, there are several original, furnished apartments still in tact in the building — I got to stay in one of them — in which the architect designed metal enamel tables and simple wooden furniture like low armchairs. She also used enamel in her built-in kitchen designs. The living spaces extend through a low wooden podium to each apartment’s terrace. Even after more than 50 years, La Cascade is an ideal place for summer and winter recreation. I was also able to visit a second apartment that’s now owned by the director of the Paris-based interior store Silvera, Alix Libeau, who’s worked hard to return the space to its original condition.

During the ’70s and ’80s, Perriand — together with architects Gaston Regairaz, Guy Rey-Millet, Robert Rebutato, Bernard Taillefer, Alain Taves, and Pierre Faucheux —built more residential buildings on the site, including Le Versant Sud in 1974, and Belles-Challes and Lauzières in 1976, which offer 590 residences spread over 17 stories. The monumental buildings sit discreetly in the mountains, their sloping roofs elegantly following the curve of the slopes. Inside the latter two, Perriand created a complex interior landscape of ramps and bridges. Details such as doors, handrails, and felt-covered benches for skiers were designed in her signature organic style. The mass-produced fiberglass bathroom modules were designed especially for this project.

Later on, the development spread all over the slopes, but this time without an extensive contribution by the original architects. The legacy of Perriand and her democratic leisure ideas were overlooked for many years. Today, the situation is changing and a new generation of enthusiasts are taking action to protect the project’s heritage and spread knowledge about it. One of them is Fred Marchadier, who runs his own small gallery and café in Arc 1800. If you go there, don’t miss the chance to talk to Fred, who will be happy to share his knowledge about Charlotte Perriand as well as the mountain slopes in general.  ◆

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