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Spas in their Eyes

Pamela Buxton

Of all Peter Zumthor’s works, the Thermal Baths at Vals in Switzerland tends to be the building that architects rave about the most, perhaps because of the sheer experiential pleasure of visiting the spa. As a result, as Kate Biro of Tim Ronalds Architects, points out below, it can probably boast the highest concentration of semi-naked architects anywhere!

Built in 1990-96, the spa is grass-roofed and partly submerged in a remote valley. Visitors pass down into a labyrinthine sequence of in door and outdoor spaces and pools, all clad in horizontal layers of local gneiss stone. Below we talk to some of the many architects who’ve made the pilgrimage to the Vals baths.

Stephen Bates of Sergison Bates

I've been to the thermal baths at Vals a few times, usually staying at Gion Caminada's Alpina hotel a short walk away and venturing out early in the morning for a swim and quiet meditation.

The beautiful internal landscape of stone spaces, occupied by open pools of warm water and a sequence of stone rooms which contain small pools of very hot or very cold water, gives you an experience that stimulates all the senses. The low light levels and the generally low level of sound adds to the almost spiritual and primary experience of bathing.

The last time I visited was with my family as part of a summer road trip. I remember my sons' urgency and joy as they swam through the chainmail screen between the inside pool and the outside, or when they discovered another hidden space. A light veil of steam lay across the surface of the outside water, the mountains appeared as shadows in the mist and you could hear that hollow but musical sound of a cowbell somewhere out there.

I've not yet met anyone who hasn't marveled at the experience of swimming in Vals.

Tim Ronalds and Kate Biro of Tim Ronald Architects visited Vals as part of their research for the Ironmonger Baths refurbishment in London

Tim Ronalds:

I stayed at the Thermal Baths for two to three days, lured by the exquisite photographs in A+U. It is pretty operatic. Tunnel like corridors with water dripping down the walls lead to changing rooms with leather curtains and deep red lacquered fittings and then on into a maze of chambers, some dark and full of steam, some flooded with tunnels you swim through to discover yet more chambers. But it is also oddly playful; grown men floating in flowers and making watery sounds in echoey spaces. It reminded me of playing in the bath when a child.
Kate Biro

The baths, deservedly, are enormously successful, and must house the largest concentration of semi-naked architects to be found anywhere. It is architecture with a capital A, and the spatial experience is incredibly powerful - the combination of enormous and tiny spaces, openness and complete enclosure, dramatic lighting and evocative sounds. It couldn't be more different to the gently faded 19th century palaces or 1980s bling of other European spas.
Simon Hudspith of Panther Hudspith

I went about ten years ago when it was very cloudy, so I didn’t experience the views of the mountains through the openings.

I found the experiential aspect of it the most compelling memory – You could understand it on a more formal basis but I wasn’t looking at it from the point of view of how well it was detailed, or where it sat architecturally. I was knocked out by the experience of it rather than the quality of the architecture.

Everything was perfect and rectilinear, but it had caverns and grottos which created an underworld experience which was very evocative and atmospheric.  The reverberating sound you got in some of the chambers was amazing.

Zumthor was completely in control, which is so rare for an architect these days, and as a result, he managed to create this really intense experience.


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