Donna Wheeler explores Peter Zumthor’s Therme Vals – more than just a spa.
It’s something of a journey to reach Therme Vals, in the cow-clad southern Swiss canton of Graubünden. One doesn’t just stumble across it hoping for a pedi and a massage; the train stops at Ilanz, way back down the valley, so it’s PostBus or car and forty minutes of concentrated driving. It feels completely how it should be. The Romans made it up to this far tributary of the Rhine, lured, one suspects, by word of hot springs. As you drive along the side of steep ravines and through tiny one-way tunnels, it’s hard not to wonder if those enthusiastic bath-builders were, for once, searching not for potential conquests, but for the comfort of home.
Peter Zumthor’s decade-old thermal baths has its fair share of architecture pilgrims, but from the outside at least, it’s no Gehry-style show pony. The structure is built deep into the slope, the roof covered in snow, grass or wildflowers as the season dictates. Composed of stratum of locally quarried gneiss (a Valser quartzite) and reinforced concrete, and without cladding or facade, Therme Vals appears to be an inherent part of the alpine landscape.
Visitors say goodbye to the traditional alpine village of wood and stone as they enter a sloping subterranean corridor devoid of natural light. They are met by spike-haired Amazonians staffing the desk, a wall of neon and leather curtains; it feels, of all things, like arriving at a certain kind of nightclub. Upon leaving the entrance cavern, you pass into wood-clad changing rooms. Once clothes are cast off and stored in deep, dark chestnut lockers, the drama and scale of the bathing space below is finally revealed. As you make a theatrical descent down a steep ramp to the main pool, warm and waist-height waters beckon. This is your initiation, a place to further shed the outside world before exploring the ‘landscape of blocks’ around you. This is also the central point to which bathers return again and again as they move along the building’s ‘paths of circulation’. Stone shafts intersect the open space and create shadows; there are beams of light here, dark water there. Each shaft contains a different chamber, the pools lit in various ways from below. The stone of each room also varies: smooth, rough, grey, coloured, reflective, porous. Water is everywhere, both in a visual and aural sense, its various qualities and energies brought to the fore as it drips and slaps on mountain stone. The windows are vertical slivers of green (or brilliant, blinding white in winter), the colour sucked from the steep rise of the valley’s opposite slope, seemingly so close that it could be reached with an outstretched arm. A right-angled tunnel leads to an enclosed resonant box, where dignified old men and women bob at the edges, an improvised Gregorian chant springing up and reverberating in the darkness. You find yourself alone in a jasmine-strewn pool, fragrant and perfect at the spring’s own 30ºC. There’s a fizz pool, where champagne-sized bubbles softly bombard your submerged body as you sit on smooth stone. Seasoned bathers do rapid alternations between a 42ºC glowing, red pool and the pale-blue 11ºC pool, an experience so intense it feels as if drug induced.
As you emerge from a sluicing channel through black rubber curtains into the outside pool, you are met by a view of the valley wall, dotted with shepherds huts and ski t-bars, the sky pierced by ragged peaks. The water steams; you float and gape. Back inside, there is curiosity out of the water as well. Next to a row of treatment rooms, is a hidden room, warm and dark, where, if you are brave enough to enter, your recumbent form on a leather bed activates a sound installation. Back below the entrance is a dim, mediaeval-like space with a clanking brass drinking fountain, complete with cup on chain. It, too, draws from the springs below.
Modern spas often resemble a grown-up version of a Wet’n’Wild theme park, but Therme Vals is about as far from this as you can possibly get. Visitor numbers are limited each day, and only hotel guests allowed at night. Bathers are hushed (at night silent), revelling privately in joyful acts. The building engenders profound respect; no architect could want for an audience more engaged with their surroundings by every sense, every movement, every action. We take our first and longest bath in our mother’s womb and never stop craving submersion in a powerful, atavistic way. Therme Vals fulfils and communally celebrates this longing; it evokes other times, other ways of being, but remains a primary, vital experience.