Les Ménuires is seen by many as a prime example in the failure of French ski resort planning. A desolate concrete jungle perched high in the austere Belleville valley. The resort was the brainchild of Maurice Michaud, dubbed the ‘Snow Dictator’ by the journalist Danielle Arnaud. Michaud and a team of young architects schooled in the Bahaus tradition had designed the first purpose built French resort: Courchevel 1850 in the immediate post-war years. This was a real laboratory of ideas and experiments.
Michaud saw the future not in small flat roofed chalets scattered about the mountain but in building accommodation quickly in order to amortize the cost of resort infrastructure. He asked Courchevel’s planner Laurent Chappis to work on a building 300 meters long and 17 stories high. Chappis refused and so did the best mountain architects in France. Michaud resorted to the team from the government Caisse de Depots. The result, according to a damning, secret report from a French government official was [I]“an architecture reminiscent of the factories of the Maurienne valley… the United Nations offices, frozen and badly transplanted from the banks of the Hudson River. You get the impression that something is not right in the state of modern architecture, at least with the architects who work for the Caisse de Depots”.
Now Les Ménuires is undergoing a face-lift. The emblematic Solaret building, seven stories long and situated at the entrance to the resort is in the process of being demolished to make way for a group of 8 chalets built using local stone and wood. The building, constructed in 1962, was the first in resort and belongs to the VVF group, providing low cost holidays to families. The Belleville commune built Les Ménuires to cash in on the rush for white gold. The community had initially missed out on the development of ski tourism. In the immediate post war period they refused to sell their land to the Savoie department who instead looked to Courchevel.
Les Ménuires was dogged by problems from the start. One landowner refused to move despite having his property compulsory purchased. No proper geological survey was carried out on the site which turned out to be largely shale and difficult to build on. Due to the design the Solaret had to be fully heated even off-season. With spiralling costs the resort sought to develop the high altitude area of Val Thorens only to be nearly bankrupted following the flight of investors after tragic avalanches in Val d’Isère and Tignes of 1970.
Not everyone has bad memories of the building. In the 1950s the valley was barely emerging from medieval subsistence agribulture, the villages weren’t even on the electricity grid. The development of the resort brought telephones, a main road and electricity. Illuminated, the giant Solaret was like a beacon of modernity. Older residents of the valley remember the communal showers with some fondness; one elderly peasant remembered that you used to get ‘a real eyeful’. The building, some 23 meters high and 90 meters long was also known as ‘France’s highest dating agency’ with many couples getting together on their first ski holidays.
With the building already stripped of asbestos and any parts that can be recycled major demonlition works are under way. The first pair of new chalets will be ready by Christmas with the resort begin finished in 2005. They will provide 150 two and four room apartments with underground parking, swimming pool and hammam.