Le Balcon de Belledonne is the result of the work and experimentation of architects Claude Costy and Pascal Hausermann who, from 1959, adopted innovative construction techniques to rethink ways of building and living.
Showcasing the technique of ‘veiled concrete’, this architectural complex built in 1966 was made of metal bars bent and spanned with wire mesh. The metal infrastructure was then covered with concrete, either projected or applied by hand. The organic and spheric shapes saved materials by a third compared to more traditional ‘square’ constructions. Further, the shapes maximized interior volumes in relation to exterior surfaces, and reduced the impact on the terrain by limiting the footprint of the foundations to just a few support points.
The Balcon de Belledonne was designed as a semi-public space, conceived as a vegetarian restaurant but actually used as a wellness/leisure centre. It consists of a main space of approximately 700 sq ft (70 m2) with two smaller connected elements of 50 sq ft (5 m2) each – the original kitchen and the bathroom. To the south of the main space, an annex of approximately 250 sq ft (25 m2) consists of two spherical spaces initially designed to be a sauna and bathing area, but the interior was never completed. To the east, a balcony and a swimming pool have their roots grounded in the rock and slope of the land.
1964 (circa) • The original owner of the Balcon de Belledonne purchases 6 hectares of land in the area of Sainte-Marie-du-Mont (Isère, France), at 4000 ft (1200 m) in altitude, for the purpose of building a wellness centre.
Early 1966 • He discovers the first constructions by the architects Claude Costy and Pascal Hausermann in the magazine Elle, and contacts them to view the site in the hope to commission them. The architects promptly draw up the plans of the Balcon de Belledonne (drafted in April 1966), with the owner giving free rein to the creative process.
Spring 1966 • Against all expectations, the building permit is obtained and the construction begins. A mason based in Frangy (Haute-Savoie, France) leads the construction process, helped by local workers. The road is cleared, sometimes using dynamite. Materials are brought up from the village on people’s backs, donkeys and farming vehicles. Some elements, like the doors, are made by a locksmith from Margencel (Haute-Savoie, France) and fiberglassed by Claude Costy in the castle of Minzier (Haute-Savoie, France), near the future location of La Ruine.
Summer 1966 • The Balcon de Belledonne (nicknamed ‘the whale’ by locals) is completed in the summer 1966. Conceived and designed as a ‘restaurant’, it will instead serve as a wellness centre, hosting retreats for people coming from all over the world.
Winter 1966 • The couple Hausermann-Costy invites the artists Vera Cardot and Pierre Joly to the Balcon de Belledonne to photograph their masterpiece. The photographs (now at the Bibliothèque Kandinsky, Centre Pompidou, Paris) will be published in L’Oeil (1967) further promoting the work of the architects.
1972 (circa) • The original owner moves to Tibet and sells the Balcon de Belledonne and associated land to investors from Paris, who will fail to realize their ranching project.
1980 (circa) – 1995 • The Balcon de Belledonne and associated land is owned by the then mayor of the village of Sainte-Marie-du-Mont (Isère, France). The architectural structure is used as a painter’s summer studio and largely abandoned the rest of the year. It undergoes its first major transformations: the bridge above the pool is destroyed, elements are cut out of the original kitchen, and the large bay of windows is redone entirely. The original front door is removed, and a low quality replacement is made. The road from the village is also reconstructed to improve access.
1995-2007 • A couple purchases the Balcon de Belledonne and associated land, renovating an adjacent old barn to make it their family home. The Balcon is largely untouched. Exposed to the elements it is fast deteriorating. Its significance and its condition triggers the attribution of a heritage label by the French governmental and architectural authorities in 2003 (label ‘Architecture Contemporaine Remarquable’). In addition to the newly renovated barn, another house is built nearby. A project to collaborate with Pascal Hausermann (then living in India) to construct a large hospitality centre nearby is birthed though eventually abandoned.
August 2007-May 2021 • The couple divides the land, keeping most of the parcels together with two newly-built houses, but selling the Balcon de Belledonne to a new owner. Until 2020, the latter will initiate a renovation process with the goal to make the house livable all year around. Steps include the removal of the original cooking fire pit (2008) and the wrapping of the entire structure in a PVC liner to prevent water infiltration (from 2011 onwards).
January 2021 • Art historians and museum curators Alice Christophe and Scott Lawrimore discover the house on Le Bon Coin (french Craigslist/Gumtree). Although visiting the 1966 structure for the first time under 3 ft (1 m) of snow, they won’t be discouraged. They begin planning the purchase and the restoration of the Balcon de Belledonne.
3 June 2021 • After months of research into museum archives and preliminary planning, Alice and Scott receive the keys of the Balcon de Belledonne. The restoration starts the next day.