Serenity in austerity: Therme Vals

April 15, 2009

(inside) travels to Switzerland for some R & R at the incomparable Therme Vals. Designed by Peter Zumthor this impressive spa retreat is renown throughout Europe for its style and comfort and quiet ambience. After our visit we can definitely see why.

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The mere mention of ‘Vals’ to any architect is enough to start them drooling. Those sensuous images of the cavernous baths with layered stone walls and exquisitely framed landscapes, designed by Swiss architect Peter Zumthor were splashed in every architectural publication when it first opened 11 years ago. It went straight to the top of everyone’s list of ‘must see’ buildings. But does the architecture live up to the image? What’s it like to actually bathe there? Jeanne Tan sets out to see if the Therme Vals is the real deal.

The three-hour trip from Zurich unwinds you as it meanders through the Swiss countryside and eventually deep into the mountains. The last part by bus slowly follows the river upstream where every turn brings another breathtaking view of a gorge, quaint alpine village or sheer rock face. We arrive in the sleepy village of Vals, 1200 metres above sea level. The lush green grass carpets the mountainside, which is dotted with little timber huts. At the summit rocky outcrops probably surpass Mount Kosciuszko in height. If you listen closely enough, the distant clanging of cow bells can be heard. The journey there is equally as important as the destination.

A path, which ascends to the reception, is made from the same stones as the bath, a local gneiss called Valser quartzite. A stern monolithic block finally emerges from the mountainside, with rectangular frames and openings hollowed out. The grey/blue stone is more beautiful than I imagined. Upon closer inspection, white soles of feet appear through the windows. The bath is barely visible from above, its grassed rooftop blending in with the terrace, the only giveaways being a grid of glass slits and spotlights.

There are two distinct parts of the Therme Vals. The original hotel buildings from the sixties, and the new bath building by Zumthor. The entire complex is owned by the Vals community, with the income generated being reinvested back into the renovation. Tickets to the baths are limited to prevent overcrowding, so it’s refreshing to hear that it isn’t all about profits. The food served is sourced locally where possible.

In a country obsessed with clocks and time, there seems to be no concept of time at the Therme, as if it really were hidden in the landscape. We receive faceless watches for entry into the spa. The only indication of time is the sound of the village clock bells, which echo through the valley, sounding at every quarter of the hour, and a clock in the baths that is impossible to find.

The entry is a series of dark corridors that lead the visitor down into the mountain, keeping them in suspense. The second corridor features thermal water that flows from protruding brass pipes, staining the concrete walls with red mineral deposits.

Immediately on the left, a tall, narrow opening offers an unexpected glimpse of the bath. Mysterious change rooms on the left clad in dark timber are entered via a black curtain. A sharp left turn at the end reveals the glazing to the outdoor pool and the stairs with brass railings leading down to the spa. The whole space starts to unfold like a theatrical spectacle from this elevated stage. But not everything is obvious immediately.

*Darkness and light, stone and water*
Emerging from the approach, your eyes have adjusted to the darkness. Very little natural light reaches this back part illuminated only by single suspended light globes, while the front façade bathes in natural light from full-height windows with panoramic views to the mountains. A grid of slits along the floating ceiling panels cascade light down the walls. The water is illuminated, so it glows and twinkles shadows onto the wall. It’s like you’ve stepped right into a photo, but it feels a thousand times better.

Inside this ‘geometrical catacomb of cavernous spaces’ you lose yourself immediately. I make a beeline for the main pool where the warm water is instantly soothing. High pillars of layered stone, 60,000 used in total, tower over bathers sunken in the water. The ceilings seem to float as the edges don’t touch each other. A delicate balance of tension, each roof slab is cantilevered from the pillars to give this impression and provide six-centimetre light slits in between. During silent night bathing, the splashing sounds of the water and whispers are amplified through the space. The main pool feels intimate even though it is public, thanks to the high ceilings and walls that hide and reveal.

*Senses, secrets and sounds*
Secret chambers are formed by this maze of pillars, each one offering a surprise for the senses: a scented pool filled with flower petals, a fire pool with 42-degree water and red painted walls followed a plunge in the 14-degree ice pool. One dark chamber houses showers each about four metres high, that gush water down to massage the body, while another is for sleeping to soothing abstract sounds. The highlight is the spring grotto bath hidden behind the main bath, noticeable only by a discreet set of steps descending into the water. A narrow tunnel leads to a small square chamber with an incredibly high ceiling. It’s as if a cave has been discovered. The finish of the rock here is rough, which accentuates the interplay of shadows from the water. Sometimes music is played, more like chanting sounds that reverberate. Or it could be mistaken for the sound of your own voice, which is barely recognisable as it’s echoed back a few octaves lower. I leave this bath with jelly legs, dizzy with over-relaxation.

A narrow pool leads to a small opening to the outdoor pool, which contrasts with the enclosed pools. Enormous cut-outs in the façade frame the perfect mountain views. At night the pool glows, blanketed in swirling mist. Bathers move around like silent ghosts, almost invisible. The only sounds are three high brass pipes that gush water into the pool. If it’s early enough in the morning, you can watch the day begin.

Fixed mahogany loungers, designed by Zumthor, are strategically placed to maximise the framed views. Whether it be in front of the full-height windows or in a secluded room with small openings, bathers can watch the view like a TV screen. The entire floor below, almost with a monastical feel is dedicated to relaxation treatment rooms.

As a retreat, its perfect combination of an idyllic natural landscape with therapeutic thermal water, fresh mountain air and nourishing food de-stresses me entirely. Even my skin is glowing. Architecturally, it surpasses all my expectations. It is only on my last day that I notice there are no warning signs, plumbing or equipment visible. The only signs are small brass numbers that indicate the water temperature for each bath. The minimal signage means that I mistake the restaurant kitchen door for the lift, but that’s forgivable.

Annalisa Zumthor, a co-director of the Therme who is also married to the architect, says June and November are her favourite times at the Therme because of the changeover in seasons and special light. She mentions with a laugh that she doesn’t bathe at the Therme as often as she would like, but when she does, it’s early in the morning before it opens for hotel guests. Now that would be the ultimate bathing experience.

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