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In contrast to the sublimely scenic journey


that is required to reach the spa the arrival into the building is rather plain. Half submerged into the earth of the hillside, the cube of the building is partially hidden. Surrounding it is a lumpen 1960’s hotel complex that is somewhat at odds with the poetry of Zumthor’s design. Non- residents of the hotel enter the retreat through doors that feel as though they are part of the back of house services, wedged alongside the bins and air conditioning units. Hotel residents have a more luxurious descent – through dark, lacquered passageways that spiral downwards into the submerged hall. Drawn along darkened corridors you can hear the splash of water ahead and for a moment glimpse below you a landscape of quarzite stone and rippling water. The serving spaces of the building are wedged into the hillside, whilst the public facade is broken with aperture windows that give views onto the valley. The central atrium is arranged around a pool, lit from above with glazing that is cut away from the grass-topped roof. Layer upon layer of mottled grey stone is stacked into five- meter hollow columns around the central pools perimeter – each of which contains inside its core an independently contained and unexpected space. Zumthor consciously created each of these spaces to be discovered, for people to wind from the central pool into these secreted water rooms - the passage between spaces influenced the design arrangement, Zumthor explains that ‘Moving around (the) space means making discoveries. You are walking as if in the woods. Everyone there is looking for a path of their own.’ Each small room feels intensely private, secluded in a silent wall of stone and each contains a different form of bathing. The scent of the flower room rises from water strewn with jasmine petals whilst another perpetually undulates and ripples as water falls into a lower level stone chamber. These are spaces of quiet ritual. Even when busy with people the place remains reverentially hushed. The concealed water rooms are accessed by extended, gradually sloping steps that results in a measured, almost ceremonial descent into the water. There is pleasure here, with a subtle element of trial and initiation - most notable in the icy cold waters of one space, adjacent to the next where the water is almost unbearably hot. Yet we enter it – test ourselves, challenge ourselves to remain their in a bid for cleansing and rejuvenation, pouring hot water


“There is pleasure here, with a subtle element of trial and initiation”


over ourselves with the bronze cups that are chained in the red lit, bubbling sauna. Zumthor’s design interlaces the visitors


experience with tones redolent of pleasure and pain, cleansing and purification. Whilst not religious the experience does border on the mystic, and the architectural tools employed to emphasise the sensory experience are deeply traditional. Zumthor’s intention was to create a space that is pared back and purist, where the concept is not of ‘fun fair with the latest technical gadgets, water games, jets, sprays and slides but focused on the quiet, primary experience of bathing, cleansing, relaxing . . . the feeling of water and physical contact with primordial stone.’ Zumthor’s rise to international recognition


has been gradual. He fiercely upholds a belief that great architecture is the result of allowing the iterative design process plenty of time to develop and mature - projects must never be rushed. This measured approach leaves little space for the demands of fast paced and fast profit commercial projects. Though his position now sees him being internationally sought after he continues to askew projects unless he feels they have the potential to work harmoniously with the ethos of his practice. As a result his built works are relatively few


and are almost entirely confined to his home country of Switzerland. His is not architecture of careless decadence and multiple proliferations, but of consideration and control. The results are buildings that are spiritual, deeply linked to a sense of place and possess a timeless beauty.


www.therme-vals.ch


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