Avoriaz is a lot more than a winter sports resort. Its lively past, its exceptional position on the top of a cliff faces and its unique architectural style, which has provoked furious debate, makes Avoriaz the ideal story telling subject.
The plateau on which the resort was constructed belonged to the illustrious Chablais family, the counts of Rovorée. Given to the town of Morzine, these pastures took the name of the counts « Rovorée » then after the dropping of the first syllable this became « Avorée » and eventually after the passing of time « d’Avoréaz ». With its walls of wooden planks and its roof of slate tiles this ancient chalet bears witness to a past when on this plateau the only activity was the grazing of animals due to its lack unfertile and dry earth. The shepherds climbed upto the plateau in spring time with their herds from the valley and climbed back down in the autumn. The chalets on the plateau were only occupied therefore in good weather, explaining their simple construction which offered no protection against the harshness of winter.
However some people were not put off by the thick winter coat of snow which covered everything. They took great pleasure in skiing down the slopes which overhang the Avoréaz plateau: Chavanette and the Hauts-Forts. Among them was Jean Vuarnet, a child of morzine who became famous after winning the downhill gold medal at the olympics of 1960 in squaw valley.
On his return to morzine he started thinking of a new challenge: open up the MAGNIFICENT SNOW FIELDS of Avoréaz to ski lovers and construct a ski resort there. Difficult to believe when one imagines an empty plateau surrounded by cliffs, with its scattered chalets and its rude climate which kept away the men from the valley. Jean Vuarnet remembers: « Who appreciated spring time skiing in avoriaz wanted to get to know the resort in winter. For the morzinois, it was practically Alaska! I wasn’t very reassured... »
But he needed a real estate partner, capable of bringing his know how and providing the finance this kind of investment needed. He found this person through Robert Brémond who proposed his son Gérard Brémond, founder and president of the group Pierre&Vacances to follow the operation. Gérard Brémond surrounded himself with a team of young architects, who had or were just about to qualify: Jacques Labro, Jena Jacques Orzoni and Jean-Marc Roques (Jean-Marc Roques was still being a student at the beaux arts). Together they imagined a new resort concept, explained here by Gérard Brémond: « when people go on holiday, they hope to find a different context to the one in which they are used to live. In Avoriaz there will be no cars. The heating will be electric, rather than fuel powered, therefore non polluting. The roads will serve as ski runs, the architecture will intergrate itself into the landscape but will be new and ground breaking. It is not neccesary to explain how these proposals will cause an outcry!
Avoriaz was born on paper the 28th december 1962: the town of morzine authorised the promoters contract to develop the ski slopes and install ski lifts. The beginnings were modest: the tête aux boeufs slope was equipped with chair and drag lifts. At that time, ’ Le pas de lac ’ was the only restaurant-bar-reception of the resort, behind which was a dormitory for the staff.
Jean Vuarnet was proud of his refuge : " I tested at last the interest of skiers for this great site".
Parallel to the development of the skiing area, avoriaz came off the architects drawing board. Contempory, baroque, avant garde, fantasy: the architecture of avoriaz has not failed to provoke passions and to collect opinions. Jacques Labro, one of the three architects, refuses however to give a rational explanation for the style of Avoriaz. «Style is inherent in each architect, one has a way of imagining and creating, and the nature of the project or the era can have an influence on ones style».
The era was not far from 1968 and its freedom of militant expression. this incited jean marc roques, another one of the architects to look for the inspiration of the avoriaz project in « the profound study of the life of marmottes !" this of course was not true, however his poetry adds further to the avoriaz legend. In reality, one idea guided thier work, to create an architecture adapted to the mountain context rather than drawing inspiration drawn from the savoyard chalet or urban concepts. The architects strove to link the forms, volumes and materials that they used to the landscape, and to the enviroment. The residences Sosna, Thuya, Araucarya as well as the chalets opposite are the best examples of this: the architecture, in harmony with the nature of the environment, abandons traditional paths, takes liberties with heights and is unloyal to right angles. The roofs inclined towards the floor are better adapted to cope with the snow which covers all the buildings in winter.
The only concession to local traditions are the facades covered with ’ tavaillons ‘, wooden tiles which cover many savoyard roofs. The "tavaillons" used are also called shingles as they are made out of red cedar a wood of canadian origin. This wood is left free of varnish leaving the elements to change their tone and colour: the southern facades becoming a silvery grey, those of the north an ash grey and those of the east and west becoming a browny orange .
The Dromonts square, in the heart of the resort, is the area where the architecture best expresses the influences taken from the mountain. The hall of the hotel "les dromonts" displays clearly the spirit of this first stage of construction: lots of cosy corners, differences of height, rising staircases, crossing walkways, chimneys with open fire places. Régine Deforges, writer, remembers its beginnings, Christmas 1966, when the hotel les Dromonts first opened: "I first made my aquaintance with the mountains in Avoriaz. At the time one could only access its 1800m by a swaying and squeaking cable car, which lifted one above the level of the trees. We got out relieved but with trembly legs . But what a reward! An immense white area limited only by the sky, the steep slopes cheered up by the presence of fir trees and the cliff face, a cliff like the one which plunges into the north sea or the channel. I anticipated the sound of the sea, but all around me was silence. a unique, pure silence, which made one respectful of such virgin beauty. A horse drawn carriage transported me away and the night swallowed up the mountains. "We are here" cried a voice. looking up i saw a dark mass spotted here and there with lights, a chateau from a dark novel: it was the hotel 'les dromonts' the eve of Christmas 1966. I had came to install a library at the request of Gérard Brémond. The place reminded me more of a building site than the hall of a hotel. One guided me around obstacles in to the part which was to eventually become the library, walking on thick boards accompanied by a sinsister lapping noise. "We've had a leak " explained my guide. "But there's only five days to Christmas!" I cried." We'll be ready", he said "And we were".
The Dromonts village architecture was awarded in 1968 with an "Equerre d'argent". The hotel also attracted dare devils who didn't hesitate to ski down its angled facade. It also quickly became an object of attention for photographers who came and squatted its front steps ready to snap the stars who had come for 'the festival' before they were transported by horse drawn carriage into to darkened rooms.
It is precisely the right moment to talk about 'the festival'. With the resort just newly launched, Gérard Brémond needed to get it known to the public. He was looking for an idea which would allow Avoriaz to be thrown into the lime light, when he met Lionel Chouchan.The bet was risky as much of the cinema of the 1960's and 70's was declining into fanatsy mode, z series, small budget films made quickly and then quickly forgotten, when two films were often shown for the price of one. From 1973, the date of its first edition, the Avoriaz festival of film 'fantastique' allowed the public to discover and get to know now famous film directors: from Stephen Spielberg who obtained the grand prix in 1973 with 'duel', to David Cronenberg, David Lynch, Brian de Palma, Georges Miller, Luc Besson and many others.
From 1994 to 1996 the festival 'fantastique' was eclipsed by the 'festival du film francais' which took over the screens of Avoriaz. But it is probably not safe to linger any longer in the Dromonts square as according to some Count, Dracula has never been able to leave this place. According to the legend, the Baron de l'Epée (Baron of the Sword) created at the end of the last century, the first mechanical lift between Morzine and Avoriaz; seduced by the Plateau of Avoriaz, he assembled his hunt meetings there, but finding the path to the Plateau too long , he decided to take a more direct route by using a hot air balloon. Ingenious, the Baron even took the wise precaution of restraining his impulsive balloon with a steel cable connected to a winch. Today the balloon has left its place to the Prodain cable car which seems to reach the heights of Avoriaz with remarkable ease. however its construction was not all childs play. The actual access road was a ski run and of course the cable car was still being built!
During its construction the 19 ton cable that the team of ‘acrobats’ were trying to install broke free. jean vuarnet has this image recorded in his memory « It flew into the air like a giant whip. in passing it lifted up a 33 metre pylon by 80 cms! We spent 6 months reparing the damage caused » .
Between legends, historical anecdotes and memories, the Avoriaz adventure is worthy of these few pages.