To mark World Architecture Day, we visited Arc 1950 in the French Alps. The 'faux' village was built by a North American mega-developer who bucked the 20th-century trend for high modernist designs and returned to its Savoyarde roots.
Marmots had already begun to emerge from their winter slumber, only to be sent scurrying back into their burrows following an unexpected dump of late-season snow.
The return to winter conditions was bad news for them, but good for me who wanted to ski just a little longer, and Arc 1950 - 'Le Village', nestled in the Tarentaise Valley is the ideal place for spring skiing.
Taking the Pre Saint Esprit lift from 'Le Village', we quickly arrived at Arc 2000, which sits in a bowl at the foot of the Aiguille Rouge. The mountain reaches 3226 meters and normally offers some exceptional snow conditions for this time of year, as well as stunning views across the Glacier du Varet, the Vanoise National Park and even Mont Blanc and the Italian Alps.
The weather gods, however, had gone a bit far. It was cold, snowing quite hard and visibility was low. The cable car to the top of the mountain was closed, so no skiing at the excellent freeride area down to Villaroger but I had high hopes however that it would soon clear up.
Despite bad weather, it's still possible to cover a vast amount of the Les Arcs ski area, which consists of 106 runs, 54 lifts and 200 kilometres of descent.
From the Varet gondola, you can access three of the steepest black runs in the resort. I charged down 'Lanches' enjoying its layer of fresh snow, which prevented it from being too icy and intimidating.
From the nearby new six-seater chairlift, Arcabulle 48, I skied down to the small family resorts of Plan Peisey and Vallandry 1600, which, mostly west-facing, were much warmer and less windy.
The Vanoise Express
The horizontal cable car, the Vanoise Express is located at Vallandry and is also celebrating its 20th anniversary. The enormous double-decker gondola opened in 2003 and was the biggest, longest and fastest cable in the world at the time.
Linking La Plagne with Les Arcs and Peisey-Vallandry it created Paradiski ski, one of the largest ski areas in the world. With access to 425 km of slopes of which 70 per cent are above 2,000 metres in altitude, you can be confident of good snow cover from early December to late April.
With continuing snow and low visibility, it's worth defrosting with a visit to the Animal Museum at the top of the Villandry cable car. Here you can learn about the 30 species of mountain flora and fauna that can be found in the area, including grouse, lynx, martens, badgers, marmots, partridge, fox, rock ptarmigan, roe, deer, hare, crow, jay, woodcock, wild boar, chamois, jay, red deer and mouflon (wild sheep).
From the museum, you can ski down to Arc 1800, which normally offers views of Italian side of Mont Blanc. Here you can jump on the Transarc lift and make your way over to ski at Grand Col, with its view over the Aiguille Grive and Bellecôte.
I eventually returned through the Vallee d’Arc and right into the heart of Arc 1950 via "la Piste aux Étoiles (the Slope of Fame)" where names of celebrities, such as Pete Doherty, who have attended the "Les Arcs Film Festival" can be found on signed panels.
This year's edition of the festival runs from 16-23 December and celebrates Dutch cinema.
The 20-year-old 'traditional village'
After covering 70km and over 6000 meters of descent I was tired but happy. Now transported from the blustery cold of the mountains to the homely, old-world charm of Arc 1950 it was time to relax and explore Le Village.
Skiing back to my residence I could appreciate the array of stone and wood-fronted buildings where, instead of cars, all you can hear only the swish of skis on its snowy streets and meandering alleys.
Various activities were taking place on its intimate squares, such as sledge racing for kids, or live music.
Within minutes of kicking off my skis, I was heading to the luxurious Deep Nature Spa to defrost in its array of saunas, hammams and grottos. I spent quite some time admiring the views from the outdoor jacuzzi, before having my tired legs massaged.
Despite its traditional feel, Arc 1950- The Village is still relatively “young” and this winter is celebrating its 20th anniversary.
Built from scratch, the first stone of Arc 1950 was laid in June 2002. Its location, on a virgin snowscape in the shadow of the Aiguille Rouge, had been carefully chosen, as well as its environmentally friendly design that integrated into the natural environment.
In 2003, Arc 1950 consisted of just two high-end residences. By 2008, more were built around the shape of an Arc, all with their thermal and auditory characteristics considered, as well as their impact on the flora and fauna.
The 5-star village now consists of eight residences, 3900 beds and 35 retailers, and there are no plans to expand any further, so it retains its intimate feel.
In 2012 "Le Village' was completed with the opening of the 1,000 m² Deep Nature Spa, which was so good, that I went back again the following day.
Originally a mountain pasture not far from the town of Bourg-Saint-Maurice, Les Arcs have developed over the years into a very large ski resort, made up of four modern purpose-built ski-in ski-out villages at different levels; Arc 1600, Arc 1800, Arc 1950 and Arc 2000.
Bourg Saint Maurice was once a stopping point for Romans travelling from Lyon to Turin, known as Bergintrum. It then became a thriving market town and was officially acknowledged as a part of France in 1860. Life consisted of farming cattle, making hay, and religious festivals until the tourists started to arrive in the 1920s and 1930s.
In the 1960s local ski instructor and high mountain guide Robert Blanc spotted the potential of the Arc Valley. He dreamed of a ski-in ski-out resort but with the facilities of a village.
This was unusual at the time as most other ski resorts had grown from small farming communities.
Les Arcs: Not a 'chocolate box' resort
Most people consider Les Arcs as one of the original French "mega-resorts" with its modernist, brutalist and angular architecture, which has been labelled "Heritage of the 20th century".
It was designed and built by Charlotte Perriand, one of the most influential furniture designers of the early modern movement. Perriand introduced the 'machine age' aesthetic to interiors, in steel, aluminium and glass furniture.
Perriand’s experiences in Japan and Vietnam strongly influenced her work and reoccurred in her projects such as her Méribel ski resort, the League of Nations building in Geneva, and Air France’s offices in London, Paris and Tokyo.
She was determined to make her final and largest project, Les Arcs, more affordable for the average French holidaymaker, so designed the apartments to be as compact as possible to maximise the number of cheaper places to stay.
Perriand described her project as uniting her work and the landscape she remembered so fondly from her youth.
The first resort, Arc 1600 opened in 1968 and consisted of small, modern purpose-built apartment blocks.
La Cascade was the second block of apartments to be built in Les Arc. One of the most instantly recognisable buildings in Arc 1600, it cantilevers out over a ski slope on one side, with its tilted back walls designed to catch the light reflecting off the snow.
In 1975, the much larger Arc 1800 was opened, followed four years later by the isolated moonscape of Arc 2000.
What is the 20th-century label?
In 2006 Les Arcs’ unique modernist architecture was celebrated when Arc 1600, Arc 1800 and the stations of the Aiguille Rouge cable car in Arc 2000 were labelled as "Heritage of the 20th century".
Specifically, they were deemed an example of modernity which blends with the mountains and nature.
The label was introduced in 1999 by the French Ministry for the Arts and Communications in order to spotlight and protect the architectural and urban heritage of the 20th century.
The new millennium
The 21st century brought a new building project at 1950 meters, and when Arc 1950 opened it broke away from the design features of the previous Arcs.
Its use of local building materials such as local stone and wood gave a more traditional look to the array of buildings, adorned with pitched roofs, balconies, and shuttered windows.
The layout was also important, with pedestrian-friendly spaces and small squares where entertainment and activities can be held throughout the season.
Cold-resistant trees and shrubs were also planted in these squares, chosen because they consume less water in summer and ensure noise insulation.
A lower environmental impact also meant that cars immediately had to be parked in the underground car parks, which have direct access to the apartments. Anyone arriving on the train could take the funicular railway and use free shuttle buses to Arc 1950.
Arc 1950 was created by North American developers, Intrawest who managed to bring a level of intimacy to factory resorts such as Whistler Blackcomb in British Columbia, Canada, and Mont-Tremblant in Quebec, Canada.
Its construction was mainly directed by Eldon Beck, a well-known resort designer from across the Atlantic, who left nothing to chance.
Beck's carefully placed businesses, pedestrian streets and residences were based on principles of integration with the environment, allowing for solar exposure to limit energy consumption, and offering ski-in-ski-out access with views of the surrounding peaks.
The similarities between Arc 1950 and Mont-Tremblant are clear: the pedestrian-friendly "timeless village," that blends in with the natural environment. While Arc 1950 captures the warmth and charm of a traditional Savoyard village, Mont-Tremblant imitates traditional Quebecois architectural styles.
They are also both high-end resorts, from the accommodation to the shopping, and dining, offering more than just an average ski holiday. While the lift systems are also state-of-the-art, both resorts are designed to be year-round attractions offering activities like hiking and mountain biking.
Ski in - step out
I soon appreciated the benefits of having it all on my doorstep. It leaves more time for skiing, with less energy spent wandering around trying to decide where to eat or drink among the surprisingly wide variety of restaurants on offer in Arc 1950.
I crossed the snowy path from my apartment at the Manoir de Savoie residence and headed straight to La Vache Rouge.
Here I savoured a glass of sparkling O.V.N.I. Blanc by J. Mourat in the Loire Valley, before my Salmon Gravlex with Grey Goose Vodka starter.
To compliment a main course of Tomahawk Angus, I chose a glass of 2018 Le Château de Fieuzal, Pessac-Léognan. I struggled to finish my meal, however, as I had greedily asked to taste the Wagyu beef featured on the menu and was kindly obliged.
Too full of steak for any more late-night apres ski, I rolled back across the road to my residence, aiming to be fresh for another day skiing - safe in the knowledge that sun and blue skies were expected.
With fresh snow and sunshine delivered, I also challenged myself on the 'piste natural’ at Malgovert. Accessed by the Comborcière chairlift, it is a marked, avalanche-controlled, and patrolled, but ungroomed run.
Quite exhausted I happily stopped for some traditional mountain fare at the gastronomic Belliu la fumee, by the Pre Saint-Esprit lift.
The stone and wood chalet at the bottom of the Arc Valley was once a hunting lodge owned by King Emmanuel II of Savoy.
A plate of grilled Savoie trout provided me with the strength to ski for the rest of the afternoon, although the sweetbread and veal kidneys on offer may have put more hairs on my chest.
After 20 years, Arc 1950 is clearly doing very well and it is no surprise the resort has seen record numbers of visitors in winter and summer alike. Quite remarkable perhaps for a site that was predicted to “never work in the summer”.