US-French couple breathe life into 1960s bubble house

The couple saw the ‘maison-bulle’ for sale on Leboncoin and committed to restore part of France’s architectural history

Alice Christophe and Scott Lawrimore have been working on the house since 2021; it has views of the Belledonne mountain range in the French Alps
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A Franco-American couple are renovating one of France’s distinctive bubble houses in the Chartreuse mountains in Isère – and are shining new light on the architectural movement behind it as they do so.

Alice Christophe and Scott Lawrimore, both art historians and museum curators, have been working on maison-bulle Le Balcon de Belledonne since June 2021.

The property is located at an altitude of 1,200m and commands breathtaking views of the Belledonne mountain range in the French Alps.

However, it is the house that most people want to photograph. Its unusual curved form dates from 1966 and is nicknamed ‘The Whale’ by locals.

“There is a view where the back of the house does look like the fin,” says Mr Lawrimore.

Photo: The property is located at an altitude of 1,200m; Credit: Alice Christophe and Scott Lawrimore

Couple saw the house for sale on Leboncoin

The property was designed by architects Claude Costy and Pascal Häusermann, whose work playfully reimagined ways of building and living.

It comprises a main space of approximately 50m², plus two smaller connected elements measuring 5m² each, and a 20m² annexe.

A balcony and swimming pool were also built into the rock and slope of the land.

The project was initially conceived as a vegetarian restaurant but was actually used as a wellness/leisure centre.

When the original owner sold it in the 1970s, it briefly became a painting studio and underwent modifications.

It was bought in 1995 by a couple who made the adjacent old barn their family home. The bubble house was largely untouched and soon started to deteriorate.

It was sold off separately to new owners in 2007 before changing hands again when Mr Lawrimore and Ms Christophe found it for sale on classified ads website Leboncoin and fell in love with it.

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Organic shapes use less building materials

They have split the renovation into two phases and have just finished the first, the main house.

Progress is being chronicled on a dedicated website, and now interested readers can see it for themselves by booking to stay there. By doing so, they will fund the rest of the renovation.

“Our focus was on getting back down to the structure of the house itself,” Mr Lawrimore says, “to go to the very essence of the building’s texture and materiality.”

Photo: ‘Going back to the essence of the building’s texture and materiality’; Credit: Alice Christophe and Scott Lawrimore

It was built using a technique called ‘veiled concrete’, where metal bars are bent and spanned with wire mesh before being covered with concrete.

The organic shapes limited the footprint of the foundations, as well as saving on material costs compared to traditional ‘square’ homes.

“I had to learn so many new techniques and tools and materials,” says Mr Lawrimore, “but in the end it was quite simple.”

Investing in the unusual building “was no more odd than in a giant chateau in my mind”, he says, and the couple are keen to use their experience to better inform people about the place such properties have in France’s architectural history.

“From an architectural standpoint, I have never experienced my country the way I have at Le Balcon de Belledonne,” says Ms Christophe, who grew up in north east France amid tiles and half-timbered houses. “It has been a revelation.”

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Dozens of bubble houses built in France

Raphaëlle Saint-Pierre, a historian and architecture journalist, says she too, was taken by surprise when researching her 2015 book Maisons-bulles: Architectures organiques des années 1960-1970.

Although unable to give a precise figure of how many bubble houses were built in France, she estimates there are several dozen.

They date from 1950 to 1970 and were mostly built by four powerhouse architects: Claude Costy and her Swiss husband Pascal Häusermann; Jean Prouvé; and the Hungarian Antti Lovag.

The maisons-bulles architects wanted to break free from the upright, rectilinear, sharp-edged buildings within which Grands Ensembles collective properties and brutalist styles splintered and thrived in the wake of World War Two.

They wanted the antithesis, inspired by the counterculture and futuristic architecture of the 1960s.

Materials were lighter and forms circular, with the lack of angles creating a more cocooning domestic environment.

Ms Saint-Pierre says: “They sought an architecture they considered more human and sensual.

“It is a mixture of primitive forms – a cave, a protective shell – which blend with nature. But there is also an element of futurism – of flying saucers and domes.”

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Bubble houses come with insulation problems

Le Balcon de Belledonne still carries that heritage, albeit hidden under layers of varnish or paint from successive owners, who did not consider the damage it might cause the structure over the years.

“I have been surprised by how the space feels,” says Ms Christophe. “The way you feel wrapped and protected, the way it integrates in the environment, like a rock in the midst of plants.”

Its construction came at the tail end of the maison-bulle trend. The movement’s decline can be linked to insulation problems as well as new urbanism laws imposed by the government in the 1970s, forcing a return to a more straightforward aesthetic.

Only Antti Lovag remained committed to the game, creating the Palais Bulles between 1975 and 1989 in Théoule-sur-Mer, near Cannes.

This is perhaps the best known of all France’s maisons-bulles, and was for many years the Riviera holiday home of fashion designer Pierre Cardin.

Previous owners tried and failed to make it liveable all-year

The restoration of Le Balcon de Belledonne should renew interest in these fascinating buildings after a rather precarious few decades.

Successive periods of abandonment and real fears for its future saw the Isère bubble house designated Architecture Contemporaine Remarquable in 2003 as part of efforts to preserve it.

Between 2007 and 2020, different owners tried to breathe life into it by changing the original cooking fire pit and wrapping the entire structure in a PVC liner in a failed attempt to make the house liveable year-round.

“I don’t want to sound too dramatic, but when I removed the insulation on the exterior, I literally felt the building breathe again,” says Mr Lawrimore.

Couple receiving advice from original architect

The couple are focused on using organic materials wherever possible to trap heat in winter and keep the house cool over summer, making it liveable for nine months of the year.

To that end, they have already reached out to the property’s original architect, Claude Costy, whose input has been invaluable.

“We had a raft of options, from very simple to very complicated,” says Ms Christophe. “She saved us so much time and money because her approach is so incredibly simple.”

Ms Costy, now 92, visited the house last winter to check on progress.

“I think she was very touched to see it in this condition,” says Ms Christophe.

Mr Lawrimore adds: “The gratifying thing for us is knowing we’re part of this building’s history and maintaining it for posterity.”

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