Vals Thermal Baths
By Pol Martin
Praised as one of the best completed works by 2009 Pritzker Laureate Peter Zumthor, the Vals Thermal Baths might be one of the most iconic buildings in Swiss contemporary architecture. Already in 1998, just two years after its opening, it became a national monument. The building definitely rewards its visitors with the rare pleasure of experiencing a genuine example of timeless architecture.
Nestled in the remote Valsertal Valley, surrounded by the monumental Adula Mountains in the Central Alps, the small mountain village of Vals benefits from a truly picturesque location. The timber farmhouses of the village appear as they have for centuries and still to this day, their roofs are clad with stone slabs from a local quarry just one kilometer further up the valley.
One of Vals’ unique features is a natural thermal spring of 30ºC/86ºF water rich in calcium sulfate and hydrogen carbonate. To profit from these hot springs, a modern spa hotel complex was built in the late 1960s by Rudolf Berger, to replace the original 19th-century therapeutical baths. In 1986, however, the municipality commissioned Peter Zumthor to construct new exclusive facilities for the baths. Today, the municipality still runs the management of the baths through a public foundation, although they sold the hotel in 2012. Before that, Peter Zumthor had been hired again, in successive stages, to redesign 60 of the 140 hotel rooms as well as the bar-restaurant.
Mountain and building
Peter Zumthor’s baths were built with 60,000 of the local quartzite stone slabs: the Valser Gneiss. The characteristic, rectangular stones does not establish any formal or visual dialogue with the timber-based buildings of its immediate surroundings. Also, there is no directly visible entrance to the building – the visitors are access to the complex through a tunnel.
The monolithic form of the buildings stems from a dialogue with the mountains framing the valley. The building intends to become an extension of the mountains themselves and the landscape they create. Here, architecture is bridging the gap between the randomness of nature and man-made construction. in the transition created by the stone slabs rising above the lawn, thus revealing the subterranean, cavernous world of the mountain. It’s an architecture that is molded by the landscape but also one that chisels itself intothe landscape. Peter Zumthor explains about the building’s concept:
|Mountain, stone, water, building in stone, building with stone, into the mountain, building out of the mountain- our attempts to give this chain of words an architectural interpretation, guide our design for the building and step by step gave it its form.|
Is an architecture that does not want to take action or show off. As if they were a natural occurrence, the façades appear as plain cuts into a large porous slab of stone that seem to emerge slightly from the natural topography, in search of light. They are the natural elevation of a precise cut into the interior cavern system of the baths.
Likewise, the roof is conceived as the obvious extension of the mountain plains. A grid of well-disguised fissures on the grass let some toplight through into the interior. It’s the architecture of disappearance.
The association of ideas as a building material
The Vals Thermal Baths demonstrates the qualities that have made Zumthor such a distinctive designer and architect. Far from the traditional architectonic conceptions, Peter Zumthor himself explains the design process:
|When I design, I try to use the spatially associative quality of thought. […] The thought process is not abstract but works with spatial images.|
Zumthor’s work constantly evokes and refers to very human, universal ideas of program, formal images, shared memories or atmospheres that we are all somehow ready to share or sense. Beyond the simplicity of its abstract form, it is an architecture that triggers sensory reactions and experiences when visited. This is an additional material for Zumthor, one which he consciously builds with. It is not so much an architecture of forms as an architecture of senses.
Engaging in the ancient ritual of bathing amidst the chiseled stones of Vals Thermal Baths is indeed a timeless experience.