Therme Vals by P. Zumthor Conceptual Approach
A research regarding the Therme Baths at Vals, Switzerland by architect Peter Zumthor focusing on the concept behind the...
‘Architecture is a scientific, correct and wonderful game of volumes assembled under light’1 ‘What if not?’2 It is apparent that each individual seems to have his own view or interpretation of what ‘concept’ means. This is typical in architecture where ideas lie behind the appearance and functionality of buildings. Architects, through time and diverse cultures have combined ideas from several sources in order to create distinct spaces. A ‘concept’ has always taken the role of an inspiration, an idea or a vision. All of the above should come from within, based on experiences and exposure to architecture. The utilisation of these experiences and images of the pre-existing reality of the world are usually depicted not as ‘traced over forms’3 but as architectural realities giving an architectural substance in each place. Ideas in architecture can be extravagant, surpassing the limits of the perceptible world. There are however, many examples where the basic idea of a structure is not focused on the creation of a ‘new language’4 and provides society with an extraordinary building. On the contrary the main purpose was from the beginning and it remains through time due to principles of permanence – architectural communication and most importantly the expression of the architect with utter clarity and integrity.
Figure 1 Therme Vals roof and outdoor pool
Corbusier’s quote in Vers une architecture used by Herzog & de Meuron The hidden geometry of Nature (Zurich,
Artemis, 1992) p.143 2Herzog
& de Meuron The hidden geometry of Nature p.143
Zumthor, Peter ‘A way of looking at things’ in Thinking Architecture (Basel, Switzerland, Birkhauser Verlag AG, 2006) p.8 4 Herzog
& de Meuron The hidden geometry of nature p.13
This essay will discuss the importance of the architecture, which has arisen through a strong idea, which is visible in all aspects of the building itself. An exemplary construction of the last decade, which has been exalted widely for its coherence and the intimate atmosphere that it has given to the whole site is Peter Zumthor’s Therme Vals (Figure 1) in Switzerland. In this case the architect has been through what ‘coherence’ portrays such as idea, form, material, construction, detail and most importantly context.
Figure 2 Site plan of the Hotel complex showing the extrance to the baths
More than a hundred years ago hot springs were discovered in the village. The first essential step for developing and benefiting from them was made in the 1960’s by a German property development company which built a Hotel complex with 270 rooms in five buildings (Figures 2, 3). Also, a spa was built in order to provide hydrotherapy. There had been many changes and reformations on many parts of the complex until the community of the village decided to Figure 3 Hotel complex around the baths develop the area, in the middle of 1980’s and elevated the potentials of the gift that Nature provided them with to the next level. The commission of the Vals community was clear; ‘creation of a contemporary thermal bath which has to be unique and independent, it has to have something to do with their valley, their mountain, but avoid clichés and provide a special atmosphere for bathing’5 . Zumthor was amazed by the geology of the area and its history. He considered carefully 5
Zumthor, P. ‘The work of many’ in Architectural Association Exemplary Projects 1 Thermal Baths at Vals (London, Architectural Association, 1996) p.55
the surroundings of the village. The formation of the Alps, 50 million years ago, and the vast stone landscape along with the natural colours captured his attention. Moreover, the strong images he gained from his visit to the dam of Zerveila, in the valley which he described as ‘powerful and impressive architectures, feats of civil engineering built into the mountain with essential interiors like cathedrals’6 (Figure 3) reinforced the commission of the Vals community for something related to the mountain. Thus, the main conceptual idea is focused on the geology of the site and the site itself comprises an extremely distant memory, almost prehistoric and archaic. This led Zumthor to see before his eyes a construction that somehow has always been there. Stone and water reflects the topography of the site and their connection is magical. What should be created was a free standing building, a so-called ‘solitary’ structure, plus wellness centre built into the slope in front of the hotel, loosely connected with it’7 . The architect treats the whole construction as a volume of rock, which is, hollowed out of the mountain, similar to Figure 4 Dam of Zerveila the way of a bath born of the mountains, an unstoppable wave of gushing water flowing from it and freezes in a structural form. The building, on the other hand is fragmented in nature but monolithic in appearance and endeavours to assert itself as a singular block of stone. (Figures 5, 6)
Figure 5 Sketch illustrating the building’s appearence in the early stages
Hauser, S., Zumthor, P. essays Therme Vals ( Zurich, Scheidegger & Spiess, 2007) p.25
Hauser, S., Zumthor, P. essays Therme Vals p.23
Figure 6 Sketch of the building hollowed out of the mountain
The idea Zumthor carries is always accompanied with an image and the visualisation of a physical event. It is not an abstract idea even though the image is almost ‘naïve and childish’8 . During the whole process of the ! construction of the building, these images transform themselves in architectural elements. This time the development of the Figure 7 Cross section of the building showing the relationship with the mountain idea and the formation of the image were both almost accurate regarding their actual appearance. Among others, the commission declared that the building should be built only upwards in order to avoid a barrier between the hotel and the view to the mountain. He responded to that by sinking the building into the slope, just like a quarry where the blocks of stone still remain. At first sight, this looks like a cave that has been flipped horizontally. (Figure 7) It is blended harmoniously with the landscape, having a flat roof covered with gr ass. (F igure 8) The transition from the landscape to the building is barely discernible. Only the geometrical patterns on the roof reveal its presence. Figure 8 Roof geometrical patterns
Architecture: Les Thermes de Pierre film, director Richard Copans, Arte France and Centre Pompidou, (2000)
Figure 9 Facade of the building
The only façade facing the village is built in stone gneiss9 from a local quarry used for centuries and reveals the construction style of the building as a whole. The façade is interrupted by wide openings, windows and terraces. (Figure 9) There are no doors. Zumthor is against fortuitous compositions and the entrance comprises a major feature. The fact that the whole project appeals to the human senses kindly forced him to create the entrance at an irregular place, exploiting every single space around the building. To enter the baths one has to use the main hotel and follow a corridor through a basement that passes underneath the surface of the mountain. (Figure 2) Visitors leave behind a cave-like reception area and find themselves in a misty hallway, ‘the so-called Fountain Hall where along the wall on the mountain side warm spring water flows from five brass pipes10 , right before the changing rooms. (Figure 10) They are clad in dark, shiny red wood and black leather curtains separate and connect the areas giving a theatrical experience to the bathers once one enters the stage. (Figure 11)
Figure 10 The Fountain hall
Gneiss ("nice") is a rock of great variety with large mineral grains arranged in wide bands. A typical rock type formed by regional metamorphism, in which a sedimentary or igneous rock has been deeply buried and subjected to high temperatures and pressures. 10
Hauser, S., Zumthor, P. essays Therme Vals p.35
The theoretical principles about architecture and water, rituals of bath and cleansing, and interaction of the place cede their thesis to firsthand experiences after he visited the baths at Istanbul, and Budapest. He returned from these journeys with a diﬀerent approach on a bather’s going into the bath. He has created an experience of waiting, imaging and walking to the unknown, as the bather passes through various level stages. The entrance to main bath area is relatively unconventional and supports the idea of the whole building accurately as the person who experiences it has the feeling of a cave-like space which its interior varies as they walk deeper into it.(Figure 12) The long broad steps that lead there, instead of straight-edge pools allow the body to find its own height and position11 . It is worth to mention that his visit in the Turkish baths inspired him to use the same qualities in the changing rooms ‘… similar atmosphere of warmth and welcome but in keeping with own cultural context’12 . (Figure 13) The main bathing area that follows after the stone steps has two large irregular shaped pools, one in the centre and the other in the open air. They both have the same temperature at 32° and the transition between them is a notional threshold created by the game of light, the darkness and the shadows. The large main space encourages the bathers to explore and wander the diﬀerent spaces and is consisted apart from the two large pools from 15 large hollow stone blocks.(Fig. 14). It is remarkable however, how all these can be used in a diﬀerent way due to the fact that they can transformed in a extra ordinary concert space cleaning the pools. The result in a unique sense of oscillating sound waves embracing the body harmonically.
Figure 11 Changing rooms
Figure 12 Long steps to the main bathing area
Figure 13 View from the main bathing level 11
Hauser, S., Zumthor, P. essays Therme Vals p.91
Figure 14 Bathing level plan focusing on the content of each block/unit and the other enclosed spaces
Each block contains a hidden micro world hardly discernible on the outside. The entrance usually leads to at least one bend and so the course one may choose is determined by curiosity. Only the Fire bath reveals itself on public view with 42°. These blocks contain various bathing functions and are named accordingly. (Figure 15) Their main purpose of existence is not cleaning but relaxing.
Figure 15 Represantational model of a block
The architect invites us all to think of the idea of bathing, its history, the awe and the mystical sense, almost ritual, that someone experiences. For him, the idea of integrating together all of them is a revival of the act of bathing in an almost poetic way, adjusted to the Western dominant culture. He compares one of his elaborate sketches, which defines a linear order between the elements in the building with a musical score by the composer John Cage. He notices the similarities, which are related to the structure of both of them ‘on the temporal axis of notation: rhythms, compressions, and intensities’13 . (Figure 16)
Figure 16 ‘Quary sketche in relation to John Cage’s musical score 13
Hauser, S., Zumthor, P. essays Therme Vals p.39
Initially, Zumthor used to call the sketches that the team made ‘quarry sketches’ but later they called them block sketches. The concept behind these blocks invigorates significantly the utilisation of the idea. In each block, architect has created a surprise. Firstly, through the intimate volumes which contrast with the bulky aspect of the exterior. Then, through the use of colour, using tinted concrete for the walls and the terrace-like floor and finally, the relationship with water. Each time the architect creates a unique sensation between the bather and the water. (Figure 17) The body touches the water on diﬀerent textures and temperatures, (figure 18) for instance the Fire bath symbolises the hot and so the temperature is higher and the dominant colour is red. The Iced bath on the other hand is 14° only. Blue and grey are the main colours on the high stonewalls and underwater. The name that each unit has defines its content. It is worth mentioning two of them. The Sound bath, a high-wall, isolated space and diﬃcult to get in due to the very narrow channel which leads the bather inside. (Figure 19) Its interior creates an inimitable sense of sound and the noise in the space is resonance. This feature kindly forces the groups of bathers or individuals to talk and to produce various sounds in order to hear them in such a unique space. It looks like an anechoic chamber but in reality is not. The bathers feel enchanted once they realise that. Also, the ‘drinking stone unit where spring water flows directly from the fountain into the supplied brass cups14 . Though, it is obvious that architect provides the interior with elements and conditions of the already existing known reality and nature. The result is a balance between relaxation and tension, freedom and system.
Figure 17 The Flower bath
Figure 19 Entrance to the Sound bath
Figure 18 ‘Quary’ sketch showing the diﬀerent temperatures of the units 14
Hauser, S., Zumthor, P. essays Therme Vals p.96
Figure 20 Sketch of the blocks‘ order and the negative space respectively
The drawings of the space, sketches or plans cite on ‘Piet Mondrian’s paintings15 . (Figure 20) Looking carefully at the above drawings, apart from the confirmation of the pre-mentioned aspect one may see several programs and many possibilities in the ‘order’ of the building. Regarding the right one, it depicts the negative space of the main bath area. The blue, red and yellow lines indicate the several joints in which runs water or not. The wholeness of the building and the artistic approach of it it visible in the drawing below. (Figure 21) According to Zumthor, this very drawing depicts ‘a woven web of spaces between the blocks based on the ‘pinwheel principle’ interlocking the spaces between the blocks along the axis of movement that closes oﬀ the front edge of the building’16 . The space between the blocks, which remains without any use, shown in yellow, highlights the importance of the circulation inside the main area. A heterogeneous, ‘meandering’17 and geometric continuous system invites bathers to a promenade.
Figure 21 Pinwheel principle 15
Hauser, S., Zumthor, P. essays Therme Vals p.65
Hauser, S., Zumthor, P. essays Therme Vals p.82
Zumthor, P. Architectural Association Exemplary Projects 1 Thermal Baths at Vals p.10
Cast as free-standing monolithic boxes, these blocks have a concrete core (figure 22) and gneiss stone for cladding. Furthermore, the sides of the cores that form the external wall are subsequently clad in additional thermal insulation, forming an insulating the perimeter along the building’s external walls, and are further reinforced by a ‘steel lattice placed against the existing wall’18.
Figure 22 Blocks’ concrete cores
They were the first to be erected during the development and enclose certain secondary bathing programmes and, on occasion, their surface is also left exposed in the interior. Using them, the architect creates a ‘landscape of cliﬀs’19 , which are a contradiction of human scale. All the units are diﬀerent and each one has a large outcropping roof section. (Figure 23) Also, each one has both its own ceiling and foot slab. The roofs of the blocks cover the whole developed site fitting together like a puzzle. It is an extremely interesting fact that not a single roof section touches another. The pieces have a gap-joint of 8 cm where glass joints protect the building from the pervasion of diﬀerent outdoor elements.
Figure 23 Sketch of the 15 blocks as separate pieces of puzzle
Hauser, S., Zumthor, P. essays Therme Vals p.109
Architecture: Les Thermes de Pierre film, Richard Copans
Inside the building this method creates a ‘dual impression’20. The roof looks very heavy, and at the same time seems to be floating in the air. The units have a multiple role on the constructive part of the building as well as on the implementation of the architect’s idea. (Figure 24)
Figure 24 Natural light through the joints
The entire journey, from the entrance to the internal spaces is a peaceful narration of the senses. A stone made of stone, which tries to represent most of the conditions of water and earth. ‘Rainer Wetschie’s21 sketch (figure 25) describes the idea behind the sub-sequence of movement: a narrow corridor marks the entrance on the mountainside, sets the mode’22 . Then the bathers experience several conditions as they follow a series of elements until they find themselves in front of the first view of the baths.
Figure 25 Rainer Wetschie’s sketch 20
Architecture: Les Thermes de Pierre film, Richard Copans
Architect who worked with Zumthor for the development of the Therme Vals
Hauser, S., Zumthor, P. essays Therme Vals p.81
The lower front edge of the sketch depicts the quietest areas for relaxation. This sequence of the continuity can be seen in a more graphical way in the Figures 26 and 27.
Figure 26 Series of spaces through the journey in the building
Figure 27 Entering the main bath level
The plan in Figure 28, shows the bathing level. The layout of the space is extremely functional and consists of many private rooms that are arranged in a liner way. This view is an image that could have been brought by the exterior of the building, broken in pieces and arranged in a diﬀerent way. What Zumthor does, contributes to the creation of an allegorical and simultaneously radical system, not to mention the genesis of multiple questions about the way he imagined and designed the program.
Figure 28 Plan of the bathing level focusing on the stone walls of the interior
‘…For a moment, I had the feeling that our project had escaped us and become independent because it had evolved into a material entity that obeyed its own laws’23 . This could be considered the most illuminating answer to a summary of many enigmatic questions accompanied by a dose of abstract approach. It also shows the fulfilment of the notion that ‘it is on landscape’s will if the building will be developed and finished’. Zumthor believes that in the end of every conceptual thinking starts real architecture which is based on structure and materials. Materiality in a critical feature in all of hs projects. In this case the architect not only blends the building with the landscape by sinking the building into the slope but also uses genuine local materials. That special local stone now exported almost everywhere, thanks to the latest massive use of it for the baths: more than 60000 individual pieces of stone slabs were used. The whole construction, inside and outside is clad with the same quality of gneiss stone brought from a quarry 1 km from the site. This underlines the continuity of the building and the ‘whole’ construction. Working towards a consistent visual appearance, the architect uses the method of a system of arrangement of stone slabs of diﬀerent sizes, which seeks to diﬀuse the joints between the slabs with the objective of creating a non-repetitive pattern, which permeates the entirety of the building’s visible surfaces. This system, known as the stone-course-layering scheme is a precise schematic in which the position of every slab of stone is specified according to the position of joints in the layers beneath it. The layers themselves have a variety of thickness consisting of 63 mm, 47 mm, and 31 mm thick slabs, which are laid interchangeably, while a minimum distance of 30 cm is allowed between joints of adjacent layers24 . The objective behind the specification of these thickness for the horizontal layers of stone is the ‘formation of a module which, combined with a 3 mm thick layer of mortar between the stones, adds up to a total thickness of 15 cm’25; this horizontal modular system is subsequently used throughout the entirety of the building’s stairs and steps.(Figures 29,30) Furthermore, walking through the building, one may realise that even the smallest details has been been carefully crafted. For instance, the first step leading into each of the pools is covered with a thin layer of water and is not connected to the floor creating a gap where the overflowed water inserts into a channel. An underground network concentrates waste water in the water treatment gullies underneath the two pools26.
Figure 29 Stones’ sequence Figure 30 Sketch of the stones’ sequence 23
Peter Zumthor ‘ The body of architecture, par. 14’ in Thinking Architecture (Basel, Switzerland, Birkhauser Verlag AG, 2006) p.62 24
Hauser, S., Zumthor, P. essays Therme Vals p.110
Architecture: Les Thermes de Pierre film, Richard Copans
Hauser, S., Zumthor, P. essays Therme Vals p.09
Light in Zumthor’s architecture plays an integral part and especially natural light. Regarding the lighting in the building, the architect uses the method of carving as he did again in other projects of his. What catches the attention of most visitors is the indirect lighting of the main indoor bath. Light also enters the mass through the slits in the ceiling. The experience one gets through the misty and humid environment lit by stripes of light from above is playful and mystical. There is also a transition between the spaces close to the façade and the rest where the diﬀerence between darkness and light is extremely noticeable. (Figures 31, 32, 33). ‘The combination of light and shade, open and enclosed spaces and linear elements make the visit to the baths a highly sensuous and restorative experience.’27 ‘All of Peter Zumthor’s buildings have a strong timeless presence. He has a rare talent of combining clear and rigourous thoughts with a truly poetic dimension resulting in works that never cease to inspire’28 . By that, Thomas J. Pritzker using Zumthor’s architecture, summarise the importance of an idea behind a building and it’s connection with the physical world. The ‘poetic‘ utilisation of a concept in terms of construction is an achievement similar to a poem where the creator manages to conflate the whole meaning, thoughts, experiences, knowledge and craf tsmanship in some stanzas. Without doubt, through Therme Vals, a clear link has emerged with conceptual architecture and reality. Therefore what is invisible to the naked eye becomes eﬀective, and moreover, artificial and natural processes are visible as one thing, as a continuity of things. Ideas, Figures 31, 32, 33 Views from the interior of the baths. Main bath, view to the outdoor pool and view to the facade images and experiences do not mean respectively anything by themselves, neither objects and materials. In all interesting coherent works though, despite the fact that they may have perplexing qualities the elements hold together well, the work itself becomes self-evident and aﬀect humans ‘physically and emotionally before they are introspectively aware of what is really going on’29.
Word count 3.194
Therme Vals oﬃcial website [accessed on 20/03/2010]
Thomas J. Pritzker, Chairman of the Hyatt Foundation speech to the ceremony of deliver Pritzker prize to Peter Zumthor 2009 Laureate. Legislative Palace of the City of Buenos Aires 29
Zaera, Alejandro Continuities: Interview with Herzog & de Meuron, El Croquis, no. 60 (Madrid, El Croquis editorial, 1993) p.21
Bibliography Hauser, S., Zumthor, P. essays Therme Vals ( Zurich, Scheidegger & Spiess, 2007) Herzog & de Meuron The hidden geometry on Nature (Zurich, Artemis, 1992) Steiner D. Thermal baths, Vals, Switzerland in Domus (Milan, Editoriale Domus SpA, No.798, November 1997) Wood, P Conceptual Art ‘Movements in modern art series’ (London, Tate publishing, 2002) Zaera, Alejandro Continuities: Interview with Herzog & de Meuron, El Croquis, no. 60 (Madrid, El Croquis editorial, 1993) Zumthor, Peter Thinking Architecture (Basel, Switzerland, Birkhauser Verlag AG, 2006) Zumthor, P. Architectural Association Exemplary Projects 1 Thermal Baths at Vals (London, Architectural Association, 1996)
Other sources Therme Vals official website
20/03/2010] Elena O'Grady, Filed under: Hotels and Restaurants , Leisure , Selected , Hotel, Peter Zumthor, Stone, Switzerland (February 11, 2009) [accessed on 15/03/2010] Steve Parnell, The critics, Peter Zumthor's Therme Vals baths in print, Architects; Journal official website (February 2009) [accessed on 13/03/2010] Wikipedia [accessed on 20/03/2010] Pritzker architecture prize official website, 2009 laureates, ceremony Architecture: Les Thermes de Pierre film, director Richard Copans, Arte France and Centre Pompidou, (2000) Karaiskakis, Dimitrios (Kingston University) ARM909 Research contexts in architecture, Therme Vals and the Concealment of Complexity Τzannes, Iason, narration of his visit to Therme Vals (November 2009) with second year studio 2.4 in Vals, Switzerland
Illustrations Figure 1: Found in Panoramio, Therme Vals 3. Arq.: Peter Zumthor, Pritzker Architectural Prize 2009 by Guia arquitectura Retrieved 13 Mach, 2010 Figure 2: Found in Zumthor, P. Architectural Association Exemplary Projects 1 Thermal Baths at Vals (London, Architectural Association, 1996) p.37 Figure 3: Found in Haus Zerfreila information website Retrieved 20 March, 2010 Figure 4: Found in Hauser, S., Zumthor, P. essays Therme Vals ( Zurich, Scheidegger & Spiess, 2007) p.25 Figures 5, 6: Found in Hauser, S., Zumthor, P. essays Therme Vals ( Zurich, Scheidegger & Spiess, 2007) p.45 Figure 7: Found in Hauser, S., Zumthor, P. essays Therme Vals ( Zurich, Scheidegger & Spiess, 2007) p.105 Figure 8: Found in Therme Vals tag, Flickr, uploaded by user Blisterman (September 1, 2009) Retrieved 03 March, 2010 Figure 9: Found in Therme Vals tag, Flickr, uploaded by user p2cl (January 11, 2007) Retrieved 13 March, 2010 Figure 10: Therme Vals by Peter Zumthor post (December 30, 2009) Retrieved 06 March, 2010 Figure 11: Found in Dru Sherrod, Trend Magazine article (December 22, 2007) uploaded on Retrieved 14 March, 2010 Figure 12: Found in Hauser, S., Zumthor, P. essays Therme Vals ( Zurich, Scheidegger & Spiess, 2007) p.157 Figure 13: Found in Hauser, S., Zumthor, P. essays Therme Vals ( Zurich, Scheidegger & Spiess, 2007) p.158 Figure 14, 22: Recreated drawings based on original publication drawings found in Zumthor, P. Architectural Association Exemplary Projects 1 Thermal Baths at Vals (London, Architectural Association, 1996) Figure 15, 17, 19: Caption image from Richard Copans‘ Les Thermes de Pierre film, Arte France and Centre Pompidou, (2000) Figure 16: Found in Hauser, S., Zumthor, P. essays Therme Vals ( Zurich, Scheidegger & Spiess, 2007) p.39 16
Figure 18: Found in Hauser, S., Zumthor, P. essays Therme Vals ( Zurich, Scheidegger & Spiess, 2007) p.86-87 Figure 20: Found in Hauser, S., Zumthor, P. essays Therme Vals ( Zurich, Scheidegger & Spiess, 2007) p.65, 69 Figure 21: Found in Hauser, S., Zumthor, P. essays Therme Vals ( Zurich, Scheidegger & Spiess, 2007) p.78 Figure 23: Sketch created based on an scene in Richard Copans‘ Les Thermes de Pierre film, Arte France and Centre Pompidou, (2000) Figure 24: Found in Therme Vals official Website: Retrieved 14 March, 2010 Figure 25: Found in Hauser, S., Zumthor, P. essays Therme Vals ( Zurich, Scheidegger & Spiess, 2007) p.81 Figure 26, 27: Found in Hauser, S., Zumthor, P. essays Therme Vals ( Zurich, Scheidegger & Spiess, 2007) p.84, 85 Figure 28: Found in Hauser, S., Zumthor, P. essays Therme Vals ( Zurich, Scheidegger & Spiess, 2007) p.99 Figure 29: Found in Peter Zumthor, in Barbara Stec, "Conversations with Peter Zumthor", Casabella 719, february 2004, uploaded on Retrieved 15 March, 2010
Figure 30: Traced over image found in Felsen-Therme, Vals, 1986-1996 tag, uploaded by user JagerJanssen architects BNA (March 23, 2009) 20 Marcch, 2010 Figures 31, 33: Found in Therme Vals official Website: [accessed on 15 March, 2010 Figure 32: Found in Therme Vals archive (April 2, 2009) Retrieved 20 March, 2010