Built over the single natural spring in Switzerland’s Canton of Graubünden, The Therme Vals is architect Peter Zumthor’s sensorial masterpiece. The thermal baths were completed in 1997; whilst building the space, Zumthor was guided by a reverence and respect to elemental materiality — stone, concrete, light, and water each played a central role in his design process. Half buried into the hillside, the harmonious interplay between nature, the man made stone facade, and the labyrinth of baths is an experience dedicated to the deepest relaxation and pleasuring of senses.
The Therme Vals is located on the periphery of an alpine valley, embarking all visitors in an introspective journey into a world unlike ever experienced, even before they cross the threshold. The grass roof and stone foundations of the building attest to Zumthor’s mindful dialogue with the surrounding environment. Built from the locally quarried slabs of Vals quartzite, each wall consists of layered stone in horizontal compressions reforming the hillside of the serene Alpine topography. The result is a building as natural as a piece of the landscape, cavernous almost, as if the structure predated the use.
“Mountain, stone, water – building in the stone, building with the stone, into the mountain, building out of the mountain, being inside the mountain – how can the implications and the sensuality of the association of these words be interpreted, architecturally?” — Peter Zumthor
Zumthor builds the atmosphere inside the baths as masterful as the exterior; commanding circulation and linearity, light and shade, and juxtaposing open and enclosed spaces — the experience is breathtaking. From the overarching circular paths, Zumthor leads each visitor through his architectural language with intention, yet granting the freedom of exploration at his/her own will. In some instances, colored terracotta of either pink or baby blue hues instinctively line rooms guiding the visitor to choose hot or cold waters. In the darkest chamber, leather beds lay with a reverberating loop of sounds of stones playing.
“The meander, as we call it, is a designed negative space between the blocks, a space that connects everything as it flows throughout the entire building, creating a peacefully pulsating rhythm. Moving around this space means making discoveries. You are walking as if in the woods. Everyone there is looking for a path of their own.” — Peter Zumthor
The full body experience goes beyond architectural language and infuses into the physical contact with natural elements in a deeply sensorial way . The ancient benefits of bathing are explored; moving through the steam saturated air, plunging in 14°C ice cold waters then to 42°C fire pools, and pressing the naked skin onto warm slabs of stones -- the senses are entranced throughout. This intimate world of stone embedded into the mountain sides of Switzerland gives the impression of a moment suspended in time, calling your attention to the smallest details. You notice the subtle slit of natural light through the cracks of the roof, the acoustics of water bubbling ringing all around, and the bronze detailing of doors, handrails, and pendant lights.
Our principal, Tommy, had the privilege of making his pilgrimage to the Vals and had the unforgettable experience submerged in the craft of Zumthor’s world:
"Pilgrimages to architectural buildings are unlike other purposed trips. They involve the research of both the history of the site, the architecture and the journey. Thermal Vals is extreme in all of these prerequisites and photos cannot replace nor recreate the physical experience of viewing the architecture. Each moment leading up to Zumthor’s masterpiece is majestic; from the unassuming approach from the small village to the experience of walking up the mountain and realizing Zumthor’s vals quartzite stones as landscape stepping stones, then to the majestic architectural parti that the Thermal Vals embodies. Each and every step is an architectural and personal experience of water, light, and self realization." — Tommy Zung