By Rachel Ang
By Rachel Ang
Embedded in the heart of a pleasant green valley is the Therme Vals, a spa built over a thermal spring in Graubünden Canton, in the east of Switzerland.
A complex modern masterpiece, the story of how it came be be is almost as fascinating as its internal workings. In the 1960s an enterprising German property developer built a hotel with 270 rooms spread across five buildings, which form a loop around the spring. He had ambitions of expanding much further, even planning an airport; unfortunately he then went bankrupt. In 1986 the village bought the site, with the idea of building a hydrotherapy centre as an attraction to the area. The village formed a committee to oversee the construction of the baths, and, taking a huge risk, they entered into millions of dollars of debt in order to see their vision completed.
The architect they entrusted with this enormous risk was Peter Zumthor, who was at the time relatively inexperienced. He was asked to design the baths to look as if they pre-dated the hotel complex, and he responded by creating an enigmatic building which is sunk into the slope with a grassy roof, blending in to its surrounds and not blocking the hotel’s alpine views. The primary material is locally quarried Valser quarzite slabs, echoing the vernacular roofs of the village houses, and the mountainous surrounds. The geometric roof pattern resembles the foundations of an archaeological site, and reveal the form of the rooms below. The baths give off the strange impression of being both rigorously modern and potentially ancient. The baths are born from the mountains, just as the mountain gives birth to the hot spring.
The baths building is made up of 15 different different blocks, uniformly five metres in height, with cantilevered concrete roof elements supported by concealed tie-beams. These units are put together like a game of Tetris, creating the spatial organisation of alternating open terraces and hermetic spaces. The roofs of the units are offset by an eight centimeter gap, emphasising the pure logic of the building’s organisation. The gap is glazed over, allowing sunlight to trickle down into the spaces. This gives the contradictory sense of a heavy concrete roof which is floating.
Each of the 15 different units presents a different environment, and different and intimate experiences of water: Water with flower petals, hot water, bracingly cold water, water which reflects coloured concrete walls, water which gurgles and swirls. The strong, robust character of these spaces is much derived from the stone cladding of the walls, which is the perfect canvas for the watery reflections and echoes throughout the subterranean labyrinth. The planning of the spaces does not impose any set order through the baths, allowing the visitor to wander through as they choose.
Photos courtesy of Thermal Vals