Thermal Spa

Thermal Spa in Vals, Switzerland by Peter Zumthor, 1996

Last week's dose transcribed an essay by Peter Zumthor, "Teaching architecture, learning architecture". This week we look at Zumthor's Thermal Spa in relation to the main ideas in that essay: the sensuousness of materials and architecture as a balance of emotion and reason. Located in the architect's home country of Switzerland, the Thermal Spa in Vals exemplifies Zumthor's recent work and is an ideal building to analyze.

The bath house is a simple rectilinear structure, constructed of a local stone, gneiss, formed from the same heat that warms the water of the baths. In plan, the building is organized around a rectangular outdoor pool and a square interior pool, with auxiliary spaces (showers, toilets) contained in small block adjacent to the pools. The separation between indoor spaces is minimal and creates a succession of spaces in which temperature and lighting guide the body. Narrow slots and openings in the ceiling of these spaces adds to their eerie, grotto-like character, established by the stratified facing of the gneiss. On the outside, large openings on the facade link the outdoor pool to the surrounding landscape, while smaller apertures bring light to the small spaces of the ground floor.

Addressing the ideas from Zumthor's essay, the sensuous qualities of the stone, especially in relation to the bath water, is evident in these images. Cut in narrow slices and varying in height, the gneiss carries a well-crafted look while the range of greens and natural patterns give the walls a carved sensation. The building depends upon this material for its composition and its power, and even the spa's marketing (which is successful in the almost doubling of business to the adjacent hotel). It is difficult to imagine the sharp rectilinear volumes and spaces in another material. The modularity of other materials (concrete block, brick) or the roughness of other stones would dissolve the illusion of an organic shaping of space by the water itself.

Zumthor's assertion that architecture is a balance of emotion and reason is apparent in this design. The restraint in the rectilinear plan, along with the logical placement of functions to create a clear procession of spaces, comes from a reasoned approach to these parts of the design. The purely non-material aspects of design, drawing in particular, tap into parts of the human brain that rely on intellect. In the manipulation of materials and light, the emotional side of the brain takes over. The qualities of sight, touch, and smell are stimulated through experiences with materials and the effects of light upon them. The success of Zumthor's work is his ability to remember these experiences that give a rise to us emotionally and use these to envision a new design that attempts to achieve the same level of excitement.