Therme Vals - Zoe Berman


Therme Vals - Zoe Berman
Therme Vals
Words by Zoë Berman
The road to the Swiss village of Vals is terrifying.
Winding its way through a steep valley the bus
slowly zigzags up the mountain, teetering on the
edge of sharp cliffs that drop into a sheer landscape
of dense forest and mountain pastures. The thermal
spa that sits in the heart of this remote village is
probably the best known of Peter Zumthor’s work,
and has become a point of pilgrimage for architects.
Those visiting in search of a curative break and
romantic luxury may be surprised by the daily
onslaught of architects and students surreptitiously
attempting to take forbade photographs of the
buildings interior. There is some irony in the fact
that sneaky photographs being taken in a bathingpool setting are in this instance focused not on the
human body. Instead this voyeurism is pursuing the
designers’ fetish for the fall of light, compositions of
solid and void space and Zumthor’s famed ability for
layering raw materials to create buildings that are
beautiful and profound.
In contrast to the sublimely scenic journey
that is required to reach the spa the arrival into
the building is rather plain. Half submerged into
the earth of the hillside, the cube of the building
is partially hidden. Surrounding it is a lumpen
1960’s hotel complex that is somewhat at odds
with the poetry of Zumthor’s design. Nonresidents of the hotel enter the retreat through
doors that feel as though they are part of the
back of house services, wedged alongside the
bins and air conditioning units. Hotel residents
have a more luxurious descent – through dark,
lacquered passageways that spiral downwards
into the submerged hall. Drawn along darkened
corridors you can hear the splash of water
ahead and for a moment glimpse below you a
landscape of quarzite stone and rippling water.
The serving spaces of the building are wedged
into the hillside, whilst the public facade is broken
with aperture windows that give views onto the
valley. The central atrium is arranged around
a pool, lit from above with glazing that is cut
away from the grass-topped roof. Layer upon
layer of mottled grey stone is stacked into fivemeter hollow columns around the central pools
perimeter – each of which contains inside its core
an independently contained and unexpected
space. Zumthor consciously created each of
these spaces to be discovered, for people to wind
from the central pool into these secreted water
rooms - the passage between spaces influenced
the design arrangement, Zumthor explains that
‘Moving around (the) space means making
discoveries. You are walking as if in the woods.
Everyone there is looking for a path of their own.’
Each small room feels intensely private,
secluded in a silent wall of stone and each
contains a different form of bathing. The scent
of the flower room rises from water strewn
with jasmine petals whilst another perpetually
undulates and ripples as water falls into a lower
level stone chamber.
These are spaces of quiet ritual. Even when
busy with people the place remains reverentially
hushed. The concealed water rooms are
accessed by extended, gradually sloping steps
that results in a measured, almost ceremonial
descent into the water. There is pleasure here,
with a subtle element of trial and initiation - most
notable in the icy cold waters of one space,
adjacent to the next where the water is almost
unbearably hot. Yet we enter it – test ourselves,
challenge ourselves to remain their in a bid for
cleansing and rejuvenation, pouring hot water
“There is pleasure here,
with a subtle element of
trial and initiation”
over ourselves with the bronze cups that are
chained in the red lit, bubbling sauna.
Zumthor’s design interlaces the visitors
experience with tones redolent of pleasure and
pain, cleansing and purification. Whilst not
religious the experience does border on the
mystic, and the architectural tools employed to
emphasise the sensory experience are deeply
traditional. Zumthor’s intention was to create a
space that is pared back and purist, where the
concept is not of ‘fun fair with the latest technical
gadgets, water games, jets, sprays and slides
but focused on the quiet, primary experience
of bathing, cleansing, relaxing . . . the feeling of
water and physical contact with primordial stone.’
Zumthor’s rise to international recognition
has been gradual. He fiercely upholds a belief
that great architecture is the result of allowing the
iterative design process plenty of time to develop
and mature - projects must never be rushed. This
measured approach leaves little space for the
demands of fast paced and fast profit commercial
projects. Though his position now sees him
being internationally sought after he continues
to askew projects unless he feels they have the
potential to work harmoniously with the ethos of
his practice.
As a result his built works are relatively few
and are almost entirely confined to his home
country of Switzerland. His is not architecture of
careless decadence and multiple proliferations,
but of consideration and control. The results
are buildings that are spiritual, deeply linked to a
sense of place and possess a timeless beauty.