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The future of the ski village lies in the past. That is how Eldon Beck sees it, and he should know. Beck, the 65-year-old principal of his eponymous Richmond, Calif., landscape architecture firm, has been the guiding hand in shaping the village cores of Vail, Colo., Whistler Village, B.C. and Tremblant, Que. He has works in progress at Keystone and Copper Mountain in Colorado; California’s Squaw Valley and Mammoth; and Vermont’s Stratton Mountain.
Beck does not design the buildings in these base area villages, but-in conjunction with Intrawest, the Vancouver-based ski consortium that owns property at these ski areas-he designs the villages themselves, sculpting their spaces and directing their views to create magical, attractive places. He occupies a rarefied corner of the architectural world as a designer who is able to meld local heritage and environmental attributes into an urban plan deeply influenced by the organic nature of European villages.
“Eldon has an exquisite sense of what it takes to delight people in a place,” says landscape architect Sherry Dorward, a former Beck colleague and the author of Design for Mountain Communities. “He likes environments that have authenticity, small scale and diversity-things to encourage you to explore and wander.”
During his formative years as an architect, Beck traveled extensively in Europe, Australia and Mexico, developing ideas that are now bearing fruit at North American ski resorts. Much of what he does is import the best elements of Old World villages, then tweak them to their specific locales.
Beck’s other major influence is Mother Nature. “I spend a lot of time backpacking,” he says, “looking at natural systems as another basis for how I design.” One of his favorite natural wonders is the creek. In designing a pedestrian passage through a village, he creates “eddies”-spaces out of the flow where people can pause, window shop or have a cup of coffee-while leaving the center of the “stream” open for walking.
His stream-based walkways blend with what Beck calls “entertainment retail” design. “The most important level of the village is the pedestrian level. We do everything we can to keep people’s eyes down there,” he says, noting that he incorporates hanging store signs, low streetlights and small canopy trees wherever he can.
While each of the villages Beck has designed is unique, there are common elements in all. The pedestrian system is the structure of the village. Wherever possible, people and cars are separated. Variety is everything. “Diversity is strength; uniformity is the death knell of a village,” Beck says, pointing to Tremblant as his greatest success in this area. His villages are carefully oriented to their sites, so that visitors are led to the best mountain views. The visitor walking through Keystone’s River Run, Vail Village or Tremblant will feel connected to the landscape. The resort is not an agglomeration of condominiums plopped onto a landscape, but a cohesive set of buildings that relate to each other and the land around them.
In addition to views, Beck pays careful attention to exposure, making sure pedestrian areas get plenty of sun. His examples of villages that have failed to do this include Beaver Creek and Lion’s Head at Vail.
“Eldon’s signature is that his villages look as if they belong,” says Terry Minger, who was town manager of Vail when Beck was a planner there. “They look as if they evolved, that they actually grew out of the land. He connects with the landscape in an almost spiritual, as well as professional, way. He sees things in the landscape and the mountains and streams and earth forms that others don’t see.”As he shapes the spaces of Intrawest’s resorts, Beck is building the villages that will help define North American skiing in the 21st century. He is the first to admit that reworking a partially developed base area is far more difficult than designing from scratch. Intrawest’s recently acquired Copper Mountain, ffor example, poses major headaches.
“Copper is a maze of rather vertical buildings,” says Beck. “When you go by the place, you see these tall towers growing up out of the ground. They don’t descend from high to low, they don’t step in their profile. One thing we will do with new buildings is add low and intermediate levels that Copper simply does not have.”
Much of Copper’s day parking will be moved away from the base area, and new construction will fill in the current gaps. Intrawest is looking at extending ski lifts into the village, a transportation asset Beck would gladly accommodate. He also wants to focus the village more closely on the creek running through it, a natural feature he feels has been ignored but could help anchor development to the site.
One less obvious problem: Getting building and condominium owners to go along with Beck’s exterior color schemes, which can be quite striking. “The hard thing, the unknown thing, will be getting community cooperation for a total rehabilitation,” he says. “If that happens, I think Copper could be really quite good.”
At Squaw Valley, Beck is designing a 14-acre site that will be home to 700 condominiums. “It’s going to be absolutely the most European village of all, in that it will have many narrow lanes,” he says. “All of these lanes will focus on views of the mountains. There will be real drama; visiting there will be an intense experience.”
That’s the goal-an unforgettable experience. In each case, Beck tries to create villages that appear connected to their locales through both their layout and an architecture that honors local traditions. (Though he does not design the buildings, he creates a detailed “recipe” within which individual architects must work.)
“Visitors want an experience that is not typical of their daily lives,” Beck says. “They want to go to a place that is different and memorable. If we bring to the mountains the trappings of an urban or suburban area, I think we’ve really blown it.”
That threat is constant. Beck’s designs run uphill against the grinding economic logic of ski resorts. Base village property is expensive, and developers constantly push to build bigger buildings-and often less visually interesting ones-to minimize investment and maximize return. The result can be deadening.
Beck points to Vail Village as an example where smaller has been better-as well as more profitable. “What landscape architects often suffer from is an inability to show that their work adds value to a project, because the pressure is always in the opposite direction, to max it out,” Dorward says. “Eldon is always battling the system to try to keep scale down to a human level.”
A new wrinkle in Beck’s planning is his attempt to better connect his villages to the mountain experience at what he calls “the ski base joint.” He wants to accommodate not only skiing but ice skating and other winter activities at the interface between village and nature-and he wants to do it in the design stage, rather than after construction. He is trying to bring the skier close to the village, in order to highlight the fun of playing in snow in a variety of ways.
For all his planning, Beck is careful to leave room for serendipity-for his villages to not only look as if they rose organically on site, but actually to do a little growing on their own. “At some point,” Beck concludes, “some of the most delightful things in some of the villages will be accidents you didn’t think about. Somewhere, we permit humanness to survive.”