THE THERME VALS, SWITZERLAND

My favourite building

At UPco, we’re passionate about the built environment, and we love seeing beautiful architecture come to life. We all have our favourite buildings – and in this column, we speak to our team members and collaborators about theirs. This month, architect Ana Sá (Associate Principal and Lifestyle Leader at Woods Bagot) has chosen the Therme Vals in Switzerland.

To start with, can you tell us a little bit about this building?

Of course. The Therme Vals is a hotel and spa complex in Vals, built on the only natural thermal spring in Graubünden – which is one of the twenty-six cantons in the Swiss Alps, defined by dramatic alpine scenery. Use of the thermal spring dates back to the 1800s, when the European elite would travel there via horse and cart; a journey of cleansing that was something of a pilgrimage. It then died off as a destination before architect Peter Zumthor came along in the 1990s with his vision for the current building.

More than a hotel and spa, Therme Vals has been designed as a complete sensory experience. The idea was to create a structure reminiscent of a cave or quarry, with the bathrooms half buried into the hillside. One of the most striking features of the building is its materiality. In essence, its materiality is stone, water, light and shadow – those are the ingredients.

Have you visited Vals? What was your experience?

Yes I have. At the time, I was living in London; a fairly penniless young architect. So I embarked on my own intentional pilgrimage to Vals, taking the train, then a bus, then the postman’s bus. When you arrive, it’s so incredibly unassuming – you enter through a car park! But what I appreciated, certainly at that time, was the fact that the spa is accessible to all. At that stage, I couldn’t afford to stay at the expensive hotel attached, but I could still experience the spa.

As you begin to experience Vals, there’s a sort of truth to it. I like that there’s one predominant tactile material– the stone. Zumthor has played with light throughout, using it in different ways depending on the function of each room. Light has the ability to ennoble – it’s spiritual. At Vals, the way it creates atmosphere can be really ephemeral, playing into the views, the steam, the darkness. It’s a haptic experience.

And the plan itself is incredibly simple, really just a series of caves. Zumthor talks about it being a ‘meander’ – an underlying layout that leads bathers to certain predetermined points but also lets them explore other areas for themselves. Everyone is looking for a path of their own, making their own choices and having an individual experience.

Then there’s the blurring of indoor and outdoor, which is done incredibly successfully. Water is a conduit that takes you from inside out. Pools start inside… you swim through channels and are almost released as the water opens up and you’re exposed to the amazing views.

What do you love most about this building? And has it influenced your own work?

I love the discretion of the design. Architecture can be about boldness, but there is a place for humility that I really value. And the simplicity of the structural stone also gives the place a sense of truth and substance.

There’s something about stripping off your clothes… there is no judgement of the human body here; no young and old. The building sits in the landscape, as the body does in the water. There’s a beautiful acceptance. You don’t notice the architecture, you notice the feeling. This is something I have continually been inspired by in my own residential architecture – creating places that are warm, and are built to be experienced.

One thing that is very tightly controlled at Vals is the light. Windows are curated to allow or deny the view to the mountain, the next space, or the next pool. This is in contrast to the informal meander of the floorplan, and it brings a sense of privacy, encouraging you to focus inwardly. Again, this something we draw on very purposefully in residential design – it’s about creating a sense of seclusion, security and home. And about thoughtfully curating landscapes, whether they’re urban or natural.

Even though I visited Vals years ago, the experience has stayed with me for years, and it still does. I was in absolute awe… and it was very hard to leave!

Cover image courtesy of 7132 Thermal Baths