Zumthor’s baths at Vals

What are they?

Thermal baths located in the remote Swiss alpine village of Vals, designed by Swiss architect and Pritzker Prize winner, Peter Zumthor.

The building programme is organised via an interconnected series of open baths wrapping around large “stones” containing smaller, more intimate bathing rooms. The walls of the baths are built from precisely cut and immaculately joined quartzite mined from the same valley, capped by impressive concrete slabs cantilevered off the edges of the stones. The years since the building’s completion in 1996 have caused the most dramatically cantilevered slabs to sag a few millimetres, creating a charming juxtaposition against those that are less cantilevered and have thus maintained their original positions. Whether by design, revision or accident, Zumthor has succeeded in designing an elegant strip skylight detail joining the individual slabs that has absorbed the level changes in the slabs and 15 years on still keeps the rain out.

What do we think?

During our recent travels, we visited Zumthor’s baths for a luxurious weekend away, staying in the associated Therme hotel for a couple of days and enjoying what is undoubtedly one of the greatest buildings in the world. We were particularly lucky to arrive on a Saturday at the tail end of autumn, the valley awash with a riot of fiery colours, and wake up on the Sunday to discover that the skies had dumped a few inches of early snow across the entire mountain range, covering the landscape in a blanket of white.

This serendipitous change in weather revealed clearly to us how important place and terroir are in Zumthor’s buildings. The baths sit silently in their environment, their material simplicity and geometric rigour rendering them just another rocky outcrop amongst the steep valley walls. The bathing areas encompass both indoor and outdoor spaces, all of which are sublime, arriving at the essence of the experience – rock, water and landscape. Anything else would be superfluous, distracting.

What did we learn?

A building need not be complex to be successful. Far more important is that it understands and belongs to its place, that it speaks to the human scale and reveals the intentions of its architect through a simple clarity of form.

Zumthor’s baths are the perfect example of a building best experienced. Though we knew them well prior to our visit, they nevertheless managed to surprise us, giving us far more than we had ever extracted from plans and photos. Their stripped back honesty enriched our experience of the architecture on a truly profound level.

If you make only one architectural pilgrimage in your lifetime, make it to the baths at Vals.

Author: Warwick Mihaly

I am an architect, writer, teacher and father.

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