Reprising the theme of uncube’s first issue: the architectural ‘pilgrimage’ – the spaces and places on everybody’s wish list to see – one of the top must-visit sites for architecture afficionados is the Swiss town of Vals where Peter Zumthor’s bathhouse for the Hotel Therme was built between 1993 and ‘96. uncube contributing editor Jessica Bridger went to the mountain to pay homage and asks: was it worth it?
Sitting on the train in Munich before dawn on a Sunday in November, one wonders who travels this early on weekends. Everyone is tired. The first snow of the season snarls traffic but the train lumbers on. Lake Constance is like clouded mercury in the fog, heavy and flat. By the time we reach St. Margarethen the topography changes but remains shrouded in cloud. The sense of being on a journey towards the unforeseen and unknown begins. You can feel the mountains outside: we are headed to Vals.
There are trees the dark, black green of the ocean, a turquoise river running white, and the snow-cover begins. Trains always feel human built, mechanical – you sense the effort of their passage over ground. Incremental progress – ample time to think. Then the change to the PostBus for the winding climb to 1,500 metres up narrow alpine roads.
The staff at the front desk of the Hotel Therme radiate the reserve of those who’ve seen the arrival of too many starstruck hopefuls. The gatekeepers of anything are always a bit over it, but this doesn’t deflate the mood, it simply makes it more sombre. The colours here are either black or richly unapologetic: blue bar, red restaurant, and the blue neon sign over the entrance is very David Lynch. The decor of the hotel is resigned, as if nothing could compare to the grey bath building nestled into the side of the mountain. Piled stone, regular and linear: exacting.
Black vinyl curtains, like from a classy peep-show, separate the hotel from the baths. The material changes are striking. You feel like you are entering into someone’s mind. The thermal bath dressing rooms would make a good setting for a high-end fetish porn movie. The minerals in the water stain the stone where it collects, dripping from brass faucets.
But this frisson of preparing to enter an altered world is ruined by the overcrowded, loud baths beyond, dotted wuth heaps and swells of damp bathrobes and towels. Huh.
Still you had instructions about this pilgrimage. You needed to be at the baths in the morning or the evening for the silent swim…
They were right. Empty it is clear that this is a masterwork. The processional ramp down to the bathing level delivers you to watery salvation. The brass railings, fittings and numbers indicating temperature burnished so that the metal seems warmer than the stone. The warm central pool and the hidden away pools mysteriously called Fire, Ice, Resonance and Flower. There is no floor plan provided, no one route is encouraged. Up and down staircases, in and out of nooks: a room, almost pitch black with water falling from the ceiling, to be drunk from brass cups. The extraordinary smell of flowers in hot water. The sounds of water, voices, music resonate incredibly in these small spaces. This space is better with no people, empty it is deeply and humanly sensual. The outdoor pool steams and when the wind is still you cannot see anyone else.
The blue surprises you. One doesn’t think of stone being this beautiful blue, grey; striped smooth and rough. Valser Quartzite. Underfoot in the outdoor pool one wonders why the stone itself isn’t wet underwater. A wonderful, luxurious thing to think. The massive building, so discreet from the outside, is powerful within, but genuflects to nature, framed above, through and in the space. We are nothing in the face of these elemental things and this place helps in that understanding.
It is worth it. This building is more than the sum of its parts, more than an object: a transcendent experience, from the start of the journey through the mounting excitement, despite the piled towels and noise. The Vals Therme achieves something rare: a crystalline moment of human smallness and rapture, set high up, under towering mountains.
– Jessica Bridger, an urbanist, journalist and consultant based in Berlin, spends about 40% of her time travelling. She is a contributing editor for uncube. www.jessicabridger.com