A contemporary structure in Switzerland revives the ancient practice of thermal bathing – this is the story behind Therme Vals.
What’s the backstory?
In the 1960s, Vals – a village in the Swiss Alps – was home to a modern, rather chic spa hotel that presented like the set of an Elvis movie and welcomed holidaymakers drawn to the prospect of splashing around in communal baths. By the ’80s, the grande dame had seen better days and the popularity of thermal bathing was on the wane. In a bid to see visitors return, the local community decided to host a design competition to create a new home for the baths.
Swiss architect Peter Zumthor. His quartzite-clad thermal baths opened to acclaim in 1996. A famed minimalist, Zumthor went on to collect the Pritzker Prize (the highest honour in architecture) in 2009 and the 2013 Royal Institute of British Architects’ Royal Gold Medal. His ethos is “to create buildings that speak about the time of their place and talk to people”.
What makes it so impressive?
The structure is made from concrete and local stone, carved into the mountain slope so as not to obstruct the views from the adjoining hotel. The flat roof is covered in grass; geometric patterns in the lawn are the only clue it’s there. Visitors enter the baths from the main hotel via an underground passage, which opens to a cavernous subterranean space that overwhelms the senses. Internally, local stone dominates the minimal design, with sleek suspended lights adding to the stylish bunker aesthetic. In the outer baths, the mountain views feel harmonious with the design. Bathers can swim from inside to outside through an opening that enables changes in shadow and light. It’s a building that seeks to elevate the natural experience of thermal bathing through moments of thoughtful human intervention.
What else is Zumthor known for?
Besides this aqua temple, the architect is responsible for a body of impressive, often quirky buildings in Europe. They include the haunting Steilneset Memorial in Norway, designed with artist Louise Bourgeois as a monument to suspected witches in the area, and a simple but majestic building on stilts for a tourist trail at a Norwegian mine.
Does the Therme Vals design hold up?
Zumthor’s vision still captures the imagination but the architect thinks his original design has been sullied by new hotel developments (excluding the hotel he created) and the change from community to private ownership. Despite his reservations, Zumthor’s masterpiece remains a bold piece of architecture.