Cyrus Dahmubed ARCH 5310 Prof. Dan Adams
photo: hélène binet
The work of Peter Zumthor is known for its ineffable experiential quality and often regarded as sublime and ephemeral. It is paradoxical that a body of work should be defined and described by precisely the inability to describe and define its components, but revealing to explore how this has come to be. Architectural works are frequently defined by allegiance to a particular style, application of trends, or traces of their author’s personal flourishes. Because of this, most are of a very determinate time, static markers of a particular moment within a cosmic temporal flow. This stylistic and temporal labeling can make such works very easily comprehensible for both architects and the general public alike. Zumthor’s work, however, is known for its ability to manipulate temporal perception and engage with the geologic scale of time thereby creating an atmosphere simultaneously prehistoric and futuristic, primordial and cutting edge. It is this temporally disassociated quality that establishes the ineffability of Zumthor’s oeuvre, and within this body of work Therme Vals is a prime, perhaps foundational, project. In his own writing on Therme Vals, Zumthor suggests that the timelessness of Vals is necessitated by the sanctity associated with any variety of complex and intertwining mythological tales of bathing deities. Achieving such a hallowed sensual and experiential quality at Vals, however, is the product of deft, not divine, hands and is the result of a great many architectural decisions that serve to manipulate the senses of each visitor in such a way as to unlock and make haptic a primordial mysticism of the space and its materials.
Completed in 1996 in the village of Vals in the southeastern Swiss canton of Grisons, the Therme serve as a bathhouse, spa, and health center for the village as well as visitors to the attached hotel and ski resort. While the experience of the space references a broad range of mythological and religious tales, the style of bathing recalls the bathhouses of Antiquity and Byzantium: grand spaces designed for health and leisure, solitude and contemplation. But the power of the space and the moments in time that it references and employs to create its atmosphere go well beyond such easily digestible moments of human history. The Therme are inextricable from the fantastical quality of their context and environment. Deep within the Alps, Vals sits at the base of a valley deepened by the damming of the Vals River and within the flood path of the vast Lake Zervreila created by the dam. The Therme attempts to harness the dynamism and otherworldly geological conditions of its surrounding landscape and interpret them at the human scale. Water and stone become the material palette for a manipulation of time geared at dislocating the visitor’s sense of time and placing them within this alternate world, cleansed of the one they left behind. The Therme engages and imbibes the qualities of its landscape through a variety of tactics, many of which spring from the selection of locally sourced gneiss as the primary material. By harvesting stone from the town’s quarry, Zumthor insured that the building would quite literally be of the surrounding mountains, regardless of the form that it took. The natural striations caused by the stone’s foliation are exaggerated by the stacking of three differently cut slabs of stone to form the building’s mass; in this way, the mountain
is rebuilt on site. However, this process introduces a fundamental interrogation of the building: whether its form is to be perceived as additive or subtractive and whether the water’s presence is conceptually a “flooding” or “flowing”. Each concept is capable of engaging with the geologic time of the Therme’s surroundings and thereby contributing to the ephemerality that results from the untethering of the building to a particular time. However, subtle variations in the fantasy of the building’s production (construction here being a far too discriminatorily additive word) leave their own mark on the space. The building’s roofline provides a first clue to comprehending its experiential intentions. Often noted as the product of a legal stipulation that no new construction in Vals can block an existing building’s view of the mountains, the roof ’s western edge meets the mountainside preserving the views of buildings higher up the mountain. The slope of the hill is allowed to continue around the building undisturbed. The roof is planted with the same vegetation as the part of the mountainside that it inhabits, and rather than a sharp edge demarcating the line between building and ground short stone slabs are placed into the ground perpendicular to the building’s longitudinal edge, and so the transition between the roof and mountain is blurred and softened. The result in plan is that the roof appears more as a landscaped promontory of the mountain than the boundary of a building. However, its deeper meaning is revealed in the vertical plane. Considered in section, the Therme’s roof can be interpreted not as a horizontal application to the top of a building, but rather as an incised patch of the mountain itself, swung upward from the meeting point
photo: pol martin
photo: hélène binet
of the building and mountain as though on massive hinges. In this seismic architectonic shift the form of the building is understood as having been pulled out of the earth along with the roof and the significance of the locally quarried stone is both broadened and deepened. The reading of the building’s form as an extrusion of the mountain is further enforced by the relationships created within the Therme’s main space where a collection of twenty stone piers create spaces between and within them. One large bath defines the center of the bathing hall, held between four piers, two of which house smaller baths. Two additional small baths are carved into piers within the hall, each with distinct sensorial qualities. The remaining piers house resting rooms with views of the mountains across the valley below, highly ritualistic and ceremonial shower spaces, a fountain room, sauna, changing rooms, and other services. A narrow canal that begins within the bathing hall and passes outdoors through a small opening provides access to a second large pool. Wide, shallow steps act as the banks of the central pool, onto which is cast a pale blue light from glass blocks in the ceiling. Light also spills into the space from narrow slits in the ceiling. Within the allegory of the roof as the surface of the mountain these slits are reminiscent of the rock fissures and deep folds common in the Alps and again suggest that the space somehow is or once was subterranean. Light is cast also from within each pool, creating ripples of water that wash across walls and enchanting visitors with a subconscious reminder that stone is merely a frozen liquid, capable of returning to its fluid state under the right conditions. Here, stone becomes soft and water appears hard and glassy when unoccupied. This effect is furthered by a nearly unnoticeable but highly evocative detail. The water of the central pool is allowed to come to the edge of the floor, and even to spill out onto it so that bathers get their feet wet before they have taken a step down. Subtle though this detail is it suggests that unlike standard pools, which are built to hold water within a defined perimeter, we have stumbled upon a pond in nature whose edge ebbs and flows again blurring a boundary between solid and liquid. This fluidity raises the question of flooding, of water levels, and of whether the space is to be read as “built” or something eroded, found, and inhabited.
In his writing, Zumthor alludes to an early concept: “ ‘Boulders standing in the water’: as I recall…‘Like a quarry’ somebody must have said at some point. We ended up drawing many quarry sketches” (Hauser and Zumthor, 26). The idea that the Therme are a quarry is multifaceted and laden with weight. First, there is the connection to the quarry that the stone for the building was taken from. But stone quarries, including the one from which the Therme’s stone was harvested, are typically open pits not meandering caves. They do, however, fill over time with water and that idea is most certainly present in the baths. The dialogue between stone and water at the Therme is much more kinetic than simply a stone space created and then filled. Returning to the notion of a block of mountain hinged upward, the Therme’s interior is read as the remnants of an unearthed aquifer. The space is seen as the product of carving over eons by an underground river and this idea is enhanced through the stratification of the stone slabs, which imply a progressive and slow erosion, and the blurred boundary found at the water’s edge, which becomes the shore of a primordial stream. One can understand that in the process of hinging the building out of the ground, the water level within the space has been lowered and so now only fills the deepest parts of the building. An even more ephemeral and subliminal element refines this narrative. It is a mineral thermal spring that feeds the Therme, and so the water is filled with various elements whose residue is left on the floor as the water laps at its edges and upon the walls as it evaporates and condenses. The result is an otherworldly weathering found throughout the space, perhaps most noticeable beneath the ceremonial showers and fountains where the near constant passage of water over the stone has resulted in exaggerated mineral build-up reminiscent of stalagmite formations.
photo: hélène binet
The space, therefore, has been created conceptually through subtraction, but not subtraction by human hands and within a human or even architectural scale of time. Rather, the building’s narrative is that it is a found object made by the water and the mountain, and simply pulled from the earth to make the water accessible. The stone piers we understand to be the hard rock left standing by the water, and their interior spaces are washed-away veins of softer minerals. Through this notion Therme Vals dialogues with the vastness of geologic time, employing its transcendental qualities and primeval spirituality. It is simultaneously new and a ruin of itself, a product of a slow destruction occurring over millennia. It further engages with a kinetic and formal quality unique to Vals and the relationship created by the Bogenmaur Dam beneath which it sits. Behind the dam sits water raised to the height of mountains, made
photo: hélène binet
static through a masonry construction pulled from the earth and placed between the mountainsides. Zumthor notes that “inside the building is something I discovered while working on the Therme Vals and have subsequently used again and again” (Zumthor, 40). He is writing here of the meandering quality of the space and the sense of discovery achieved by creating circulatory paths that first confine and later free the wanderer. However, there is arguably something much deeper and intrinsic to Zumthor’s work after Vals that he is likely to have discovered there, and that is the quality of timelessness. Being untethered from any particular moment, existing outside of the realm of human and architectural time, is what has given so many of his projects their ineffable experiential qualities.
Diagramatic plan Baths Showers + Fountains
Works Cited 1. Hauser, Sigrid and Peter Zumthor. Therme Vals. Zurich: Scheidegger & Spiess, 2007 2. Zumthor, Peter. Peter Zumthor, 1990-1997. Buildings and Projects, Volume 2. Ed. Thomas Durisch. Zurich: Scheidegger & Spiess, 2014
An examination of Peter Zumthor's famous Therme Vals, attempting to get at exactly what makes it tick.