8 The spa complex converges the steam coming from the mountains with the ones rising from the Graubunden Canton’s springs to become bathing, a ritual of purification. The architectural experience engages its visitors with the empowering structure and its exceptional presence arising from the mountains. Therefore, this unique space reunites light and shadows which creates a sensorial atmosphere with the sublime. Therme Vals Spa is a physical and mental experience where occupants need to submerge to understand Peter Zumthor’s masterpiece.  

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Therme Vals Spa in Switzerland by Peter Zumthor- Sheet1
Great Opening to the Alpines; Source: ©Premium Switzerland.
Therme Vals Spa in Switzerland by Peter Zumthor- Sheet2
Steams from the Baths and Interaction with Outdoor Spaces; Source: ©Dezeen.

In the alpine village of Vals, Peter Zumthor designed a modernist construction known as Therme Vals Spa; opened to the public in 1996. The architect was principally inspired by “The Subject of Phenomenology” by Martin Heidegger, whose theory establishes experiences captured through the five senses. Therefore, architecture’s role is to create a new system where the occupants connect deeper with nature and architecture. For that reason, Peter Zumpthor highlighted the principal characteristics of the site to create Therme Vals Spa in Switzerland, such as the steam emerging from the mountains, the alpine’s topography, and the change of seasons throughout the year. Peter Zumthor translated the sensory aspects and he incorporated these qualities into Therme Vals Spa’s architectural design. The architectural language that Zumthor adapted for the spa complex is distinctive, the architect was meticulous on the selection of materials, temperatures in the bath’s water, and use of light and shadows; to create an expose of hedonism. The design process has been defined by Zumthor as a “step by step process” in which he considered every single aspect to create an architectural continuation of the mountain and space to respect bathing and mystic silence. At the same time, Zumthor was willing to drive a sensorial architectural experience that retakes the concepts about rituals of purification and thermal baths performed through history. The ideas of Peter Zumthor materialized in Vals Therme Spa where he created a philosophical dialog between the occupant, architecture, and merge into water.

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When Light and Darkness meet; Source: ©Dezeen.

Vals Therme Spa is the product of a sculptured architectural vision that connects with space and nature. The bath building’s design adapts to the hills’ slope and it seems to emerge from the natural landscape. From the upper level, the building’s roof was designed with fifteen rectangular slabs of green infrastructure; this idea is to create a visual continuation of the local grasses. In contrast to the lower level of the hill, Therme Vals Spa’s façade faces Switzerland’s picturesque alpines. The Spa Complex’s façade is structured with consecutive wide openings and monolithic walls; moreover, the load-bearing structure is covered with Valser Quarzite slabs. The material used for Vals Therme Spa’s outdoors and interior spaces are concrete and Quartzite slabs—The local rock, it a material that comes from a long trajectory in the construction of local residences. Through the years, the village houses have used local geologic sources to strengthen their residential structures, and these natural materials have demonstrated resistance to drastic seasonal changes. Zumthor applied the site’s history into Vals Therme Spa’s design with the use of Vals Quartzite to cover the construction’s walls and ceilings. In the exteriors, Valser Quarzite slabs protect the structure, but in the interior, it gives a dense feeling which is balanced with the elongated walls. As a result, the 60,000 slaps of Valser Quarzite in Vals Therme Spa explain the narrative of this mystical Spa complex and its secret architectural moments. Vals Therme Spa is a restorative experience that retakes the respect of bathing from ancient times and explores the self-connection with the topography of the alpine village of Vals.

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Therme Vals Spa in Switzerland by Peter Zumthor- Sheet4
Section and Concept Sketches from Case Studies; Source: ©Behance.
Therme Vals Spa in Switzerland by Peter Zumthor- Sheet5
Peter Zumthor’s Sketches for Vals Therme Spa; Source: ©Architecturalogy.

Peter’s Zumthor’s masterpiece is a complex design composed of monolithic horizontal and vertical slabs; this composition creates a puzzling construction where its joins conserve eight centimeters of separation in between the slabs. This technique allows natural light to play with the roof rectangular blocks’ apertures, and it creates a mystic architectural momentum in the interior spaces. It is described as the moment when light and shade combine, and it generates a sublime atmosphere where the rhythm of silence is prevalent.  The rectangular blocks keep the Therme Vals Spa fortification, but also, Zumthor considered them as elements for thermal comfort. The monolithic walls perform an essential role as thermal masses to conserve the water’s heat in Vals Therme Spa. The walls’ thickness is revealed with the windows’ negative space, creating a cave effect from the occupant’s perspective. Furthermore, the thermal mass building’s interiors consist of a series of aesthetic private and common spaces. Vals Therme Spa’s interiors are organized with blocks, each one of them contains water from the bath. The flowing water is illuminated with different colors to indicate the purpose of the space and its respective temperatures. The light is also reflected in the masonry construction and this effect creates a cave space. In the private rooms, the occupant’s time is dictated by an architectural watch located at the entrance of the block; it was program intervention from Peter Zumthor after the spa opened. However, the program compensates the naturalistic environments from the outdoors and indoor areas, and both share the flowing water from the Therme Spa. All the architectural features generate a multisensory experience with nature, where the sensory stimulations come from the integrative ideas from Peter Zumthor and his architectural design.

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Eight Centimeter Aperture Between Blocks; Source: Dezeen.

Vals Therme Spa explores the sensorial phenomenon between nature, architecture, and its visitors. Peter Zumthor used techniques to understand the topography of the alpines and he carved from its topography a sculptural masterpiece. Vals Therme Spa is an architectural composition that implores rhythm in every single aspect of the spa construction. Its harmonic interior and exterior spaces create a mystical experience in the alpines in the Village of Vals. Peter Zumthor, Pritzker Prize winner in 2009, retook ancient concepts of bath and the ritual of being cleaned, and as a result, he proposed a modernist architectural dialogue between the past and the present of human beings within a space. Finally, words are not needed to describe Vals Therme Spas beauty and its wonders; Zumthor’s creation is an art piece that starts with the presence.

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Outdoor Bath; Source: Dezeen.

I work a little bit like a sculptor. When I start, my first idea for a building is with the material. I believe architecture is about that. It’s not about paper, it’s not about forms. It’s about space and material – Peter Zumthor

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Harmonic Composition in Therme Vals Spa’s Exteriors; Source: Dezeen.

References

Architecture and Phenomenology: Zumthor’s Therme Vals Spa Examined with a Phenomenological Approach. Mina Dreki. https://www.academia.edu/30674328/ARCHITECTURE_AND_PHENOMENOLOGY_ZUMTHOR_S_THERME_VALS_SPA_EXAMINED_WITH_A_PHENOMENOLOGICAL_APPROACH 

Exemplary Projects – Therme Vals. The University of Brighton. Studentfolio. https://folio.brighton.ac.uk/user/jvc11/examplary-projects-therme-vals-naman-spa

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Multiplicity and Memory: Talking About Architecture with Peter Zumthor. Archidaily. https://www.archdaily.com/85656/multiplicity-and-memory-talking-about-architecture-with-peter-zumthor 

Peter Zumthor. Floor Nature Architecture and Surfaces. https://www.floornature.com/peter-zumthor-63/ 

Peter Zumthor reveals the secrets of Therme Vals. Phaidon. https://www.phaidon.com/agenda/architecture/articles/2013/february/12/peter-zumthor-reveals-the-secrets-of-therme-vals/ 

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The Therme Vals l Peter Zumthor. Arch20. https://www.arch2o.com/the-therme-vals-peter-zumthor/#:~:text=The%20Therme%20Vals%20is%20built,with%20great%20dignity%20and%20respect.&text=This%20space%20was%20designed%20for,the%20ancient%20benefits%20of%20bathing.

Therme Vals (Russell). Atmospheric. https://atmospherics3.wordpress.com/4-therme-vals/

The Pritzker Architecture Prize. The Hyatt Foundation. https://www.pritzkerprize.com/biography-peter-zumthor

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Author

Andreina Sojo comes from Caracas, Venezuela. Seeking for higher education, Andreina studied in Broward College, Florida, and Seville, Spain as a recipient of the William E. Green Scholarship. Andreina graduated with honors, and she transferred to the University of Florida to complete her Bachelor's in Architecture and Minor in Landscape Architecture.

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