Although his organic, formalist sensibilities and discerning aesthetic make him a contemporary "architect's architect," Peter Zumthor, 64, has yet to claim celebrity status on a par with that of Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas or his Swiss brethren Herzog and De Meuron. Zumthor's buildings, scattered mainly around alpine hamlets in southern Switzerland, include a shelter for a Roman archaeological site, an elementary school, several residences, a small art museum, and a chapel. The architect lives and works near the village of Chur, an ancient settlement along the headwaters of the Rhine. In general, he shuns publicity, having stated repeatedly that he prefers visitors to experience rather than photograph his structures. Yet one building Zumthor completed in 1996 has become an icon of world architecture. The thermal baths ( "Therme") at Vals, several valleys west of St. Moritz, have made that remote valley a regional mecca for pilgrims to the natural hot springs that once attracted Celtic mystics (a Bronze Age basin was discovered during excavations). Today the springs bubble into the pools of Zumthor's minimalist shrine to bathing.
I started my own pilgrimage to Therme in Milan, boarding the sleek Cisalpino Express train that crosses the Alps. In Bellinzona, Switzerland, I transferred to a yellow Post- Bus, which, thanks to the fully integrated Swiss transportation system, departed exactly seven minutes after the train arrived. The bus took me up under the San Bernardino Pass, near the glacier where the Rhine begins as a narrow stream, and down to Chur. From there, the red toy-train cars of the Rhätische Bahn departed for the village of Illanz precisely seven minutes later. At Illanz, seven minutes later still, another PostBus began winding circuitously up a narrow valley to Vals. The entire trip took about four and a half hours.
Therme's history dates to 1983, when the citizens of Vals found themselves saddled with a cluster of underused 1960s hotels resembling the sleek concrete structures often featured in Wallpaper. Wanting to fill the rooms, the village leaders stumbled upon the "Bilbao effect": Build a great building, and the throngs will follow. They hired Zumthor in 1986, and a decade later the structure, wrought of some 60,000 slabs of local quartzite, became an instant architecture icon.
When conceiving the spa, Zumthor has said, he wanted to create a space wedded integrally to its site. The building bespeaks geologic permanence in its jewel-like use of the 300-million-year-old slabs of quartzite, in mottled gray, that the architect specified be cut into narrow plates. In form, Therme fits between two existing buildings on a steep slope and is a long, rectangular box partially bermed into the mountainside. Only a facade of stone and glass is full visible as the structure rises from the earth like a cliff, presenting a clean coalition of architecture and minimalist sculpture.
Inside, Therme's large spaces are pierced with seams of light, as in a Turkish bath, and divided into a labyrinth of pools, terraces, tunnels, and grottoes.You first encounter the building Zumthor has described as a meditation on stone, water, and light through a subterranean entry that expresses not so much an arrival as an emergence: A dark, narrow underground passage leads dramatically to Therme's interior. Bypassing a traditional portal in this way, a visitor feels the building's organic composition before the form is revealed to the eye.
Zumthor asks bathers to meander the spa in a spirit of discovery. My first find was a large, shallow pool with light filtering down through small squares in the high ceiling and a view through plateglass windows of the mountain landscape. From there my path led to a narrow channel of water that connects a bather, by swimming under a transparent panel separating an enclosed pool from an exposed one, to the chilly outdoors. There I floated while gazing through the steam at the snow-covered Alps.
Continuing down stone steps, through low tunnels, and around corners, I gradually discovered a series of smaller pools. Fire and ice pools live up to their respective names in temperature. The resonance room, or Klangbad, is designed with a high ceiling whose acoustics encourage communal chanting.
Barely illuminated steam rooms invite repose. Inside a dark, cryptlike chamber, where one bather at a time reclines on a leather bench, hidden speakers echo with the sounds of stones struck together.At intervals along the walls, dripping spouts stain the quartzite a bright mineral orange.
Visitors to Therme stay at one of the three 1960s-era hotels now collectively known as Hotel Therme Vals. Although Zumthor did not design any of these buildings-which range from budget, youth-hostel accommodations to sleek, 007-style fittings-his chrome-and-black-leather chairs in the main lobby permit guests to sit back and take in Swiss couples smoking cigarettes and swilling the ubiquitous Valser Wasser as a man in a tuxedo plays light hits on the grand piano. When tired of people-watching, you can return to your room, put on your robe and slippers, and descend terrazzo stairs to the spa level.
Architecture is alternately described as built form and organized space, or as art that solves human problems. At Therme the success of the built form, with its clean surfaces and organic connection to place, is immediately apparent. Likewise, as a visitor meanders through the organized space, one experiences the tactile, visual, and aural pleasures of stone, water, and light interacting in a way that many visitors have described as semireligious. Unfortunately, however, the shrinelike impact of Therme is blunted by the very success with which it fulfills its program: Therme is almost too popular. As a city-owned spa, it functions much like a public pool in a small American town.
To help overnight guests avoid the crowds, the Swiss (of course) have turned to the clock. Several days a week, hotel guests are given exclusive access to the baths early in the morning and late at night. At those times, a code of "pure bathing" requires absolute silence so that a visitor can feel the serenity that Druid priests might have found in these remote mountain grottoes.
Dru Sherrod is a social and environmental psychologist who formerly taught design and behavior to architecture students. He is currently engaged in the practice of jury research and resides part of the year in Santa Fe.