The Therme Vals is a project of resistance, opposing the architecture of spectacle. Designed by Swiss architect, Peter Zumthor, the thermal baths at Vals is both a meditation on the essential elements – earth, wind, water & fire – and an economic initiative to drive tourism. The Therme Vals embodies the potential that architecture has to calm the body and mind in an ever increasing world of hyper speed, space and communications.
Nestled in the Swiss Alps, 100 miles South of Zurich with a population of less than 1,000, Vals is known for its spring water which is sold throughout Switzerland. In the 1980s, when a local hotel owner went bankrupt, the village stepped in and purchased the hotels, hoping to transform one of them into a hydrotherapy center. The village then commissioned Peter Zumthor to design the baths which would not only be an amenity for the community but an attraction for visitors.
Since its opening in 1996, the village has seen a dramatic increase in the number of tourists making tourism Vals’ primary source of income accounting for 2/3 of the local economy. Architecture aficionados and travelers alike are drawn to this magnificent building to experience how the architecture has established a dialogue with the powerful landscape that surrounds it and the healing qualities of the thermal bath water.
The design creates a series of spaces that are organized within and between structural box columns of concrete, faced in indigenous Valser quartzite. The roof is a system of thin cantilevered concrete slabs that are supported by the box columns. The roof slabs do not touch, allowing the natural light to dramatically enter the baths through linear glass skylights.
As you enter the baths, you pass through an acrylic curtain, into a world meant to delight the senses. It seems paradoxical that one of the most masterful works of contemporary architecture should have such an understated and unusual entrance.
The baths, ranging from a tepidarium that is 40 degrees Celsius to a much cooler outdoor pool, are organized in a complex labyrinth of chambers inside and between the structural column-rooms. The concrete inside the tepidarium is integrally colored a deep red.
The Therme Vals is more than just great architecture that can be appreciated in relation to the unbuilt Danteum project by the Italian modernist Giuseppi Terragni. It also demonstrates how a small village can be creative and entrepreneurial. The Therme Vals offers a seductive shift from the paradigm of the Bilbao effect where architecture is a vehicle for economic health through spectacle and display to architecture as a space of desire – for the engagement of mind, body and soul, and community – and an equally powerful driver of local economy.
Photographs taken from Flickr account members: sim and Dee Adams