What does a ski resort look like? Well, the answer isn’t that simple. Old or new, pretty or more functional, they’re all different. And how they look is down to the influences at play when they were being designed, from local industry to the expansion of railways, and ever-changing architectural styles.
Art Nouveau and Art Deco spread across Europe in the early 20th century, weaving the shapes of nature and the geometric lines of the times into architecture. Blossoming ski resorts were soon filled with the curled ironwork and curved glass of the movements.
Bad Gastein in Austria built grand hotels in this new style, using pastel-coloured façades and decorative panelling to draw in wealthy travellers – who first came for the healing spa waters and then, eventually, to ski. Many of these buildings stand today as monuments to an artistic past, despite the town modernising around them.
Fast-forward to the 1960s and the evolution of Europe’s mountain resorts took a starker turn. The epitome was Flaine, created under the Brutalist ideal of showcasing urban development while respecting the environment. The high-rise concrete buildings contrast sharply with the mountains, their colour mirroring the rocks, and the geometric shapes play with light and shadow to add depth.
Similarly, Avoriaz is full of high-rises that, at first glance, don’t fit the landscape. Just as there are no right angles in nature, each building is a puzzle of slanted roofs, diagonal walls and staggered storeys. They’re clad in cedar-wood shingles, left unvarnished to be weathered by the sun.
Long before architectural movements started to lead the way on design, it was the local mountain industries that shaped the buildings.
In Switzerland, Zermatt’s agricultural past lingers in the old town, the Hinterdorf. This huddle of houses and barns has survived since the 16th century. They’re made of local larch wood with rock roofs, the better to withstand snow, and many sit propped on stilts to keep out mice.
After discovering natural hot springs in 1883, Canadian Pacific proclaimed Banff a spa destination, using tourism to help fund a new railway. Wealthy Europeans were tempted over by its grand hotels, whose style evolved with the times. The Fairmont Banff Springs has gone from a wood-shingled structure to stone-faced concrete, with new wings and turrets enhancing its ‘Castle in the Rockies’ reputation. Through it all, its regal elegance remains in the sweeping staircases and chandeliers.
Today it’s the state-of-the-art gondolas, innovative viewpoints and new-concept hotels that catch people’s attention. The Top Mountain Star in Obergurgl, Austria, is the pinnacle of cutting-edge design. Restaurant, viewing platform and architectural jewel all rolled into one, it crowns a narrow ridge at 3,000 metres. The concrete base is topped with a circular glass façade, a glass dome and steel girders that jut out like the rays of a star.
In contrast, the Messner Mountain Museum in Kronplatz, Italy – created by famed architect Zaha Hadid – blends concrete into the surrounding rocks, proving that nature continues to inspire art, even today.
From artistic movements to extinct industries, each resort has its own story. Explore them for yourself to discover the personality beneath the pistes.