July 2, 2007

Vals (Switzerland)

We walked through a black painted corridor, slowly towards the light. We were wearing thick soft white bathrobes and slippers from the hotel room, feeling a bit fancy at first, but being in them gave a sense of belonging in this place.

We passed by the check-in desk, where it seemed like you'd normally stop during the day to get information, but tonight it was empty. We arrived at the Thermal Vals on Sunday evening, when they were having a "hotel guest only" bath time between 10pm to midnight. All that we were informed was that it was an "Absolute Silence" program reserved for "adults only."

We continued to walk down the hall towards the sound of trickling water. We arrived at the long dimmed concrete hallway. One side had a series of mineral water sprouts, reacting with the concrete surface, creating a beautiful rustic natural corrosion on the wall and floor below. The other side was a series of changing rooms with lockers, separated by black rubber drapes. We realized quickly this was the zone to prepare yourself for entering the baths. Since there was no signs or maps of the facility, we followed a few other guests to see where to proceed next.

At the end of hall, we turned around the corner, and arrived at the upper level of a grand ramp, pin pendent lighting in the background marking a way. The ramp led down to the main bath floor. We looked around for a few minutes, trying to observe before entering into the pools... and were amazed to realize that the entire facility was made out of one type of stone....gray, green granite quarried locally. Peter Zumthor, architect, carefully layed out the stone pattern along the walls, floors, and ceilings, using a different scale of tile and applying different textures / finishes to create variety and a harmonious expression within. The stone also had a rich quality to reflect the surroundings. The sound of water hitting against pool edge, the illuminated water surface reflecting onto the wall creating movement within the wall pattern, and the darkened color of stone recording where people walked with wet feet.

The large central indoor pool was formed with 4 large rectangular pier-like full-height elements, as if to prevent your eyes from seeing the entire pool at once. Views were particularly thought-through... each location in the baths afforded a framed view (reminiscent of the way Mies Van de Rohe framed views at the Barcelona Pavilion). A slow walk down deep generous steps led into the water . The ceiling had deep squares formed into the concrete work filled with blue glass, bringing down a light that varied with intensity according to the conditions of the sky. Where the walls met the ceiling, a gap was often left to let light come through, which illuminated the texture of the wall and created a line for the eye to follow. The place was lit by mostly underwater lighting, which caused the entire pool surface to glow. The water itself was extremely clean, with small soda-like bubbles that would stick to your skin surface. The water level was at just about shoulder height, keeping most of the body submerged... which created a rather surreal landscape of heads moving across the water surface.

A side pool along the edge of the ramp surprised us by connecting to the outdoor pool directly. It was warm enough even at night, and gave fresh mountain air to breathe. There was a constant rise of mist from the water surface, as if reflecting fast moving mountain clouds. The night we were there it was lightly raining... it was wonderful to visually capture the rain as it fell to the water surface, each drop creating a small wave, almost becoming hundreds of minuscule candle lights floating on the water. Beautiful.

There were four other small scale baths inside, warmer water, colder water, floral aroma water, and a sound and light chamber... each gave a cozy setting to enjoy different temperatures and contexts.

The room we stayed in was called 'selva stucco', a recently added room type that Peter Zumthor redesigned from their old 1970s selva room stock. In this room he used red stucco for all walls and ceilings (venetian plaster). He also used hand-painted Koho-dyed curtains, and a beautiful dark beech wood floor. The shower floor was heated limestone. Furniture was all high end, many pieces designed by Zumthor.


  1. Amazing photos you guys. Please steal a Zumthor rock for me ;-)

  2. Wow, and to think I was planning on visiting there myself just last year. Weird. Wanna see the email exchange I had with a friend on 1/03/06 concerning these same said Zumthor baths?

    Thomas Koner even did some field recordings there back on like 2002? 03? I can't remeber what the project was called tho'.

    Nonetheless, very coooool.

  3. "...mineral water sprouts, reacting with the concrete surface, creating a beautiful rustic natural corrosion on the wall and floor below."

    What a load of crap! What actually happened is water rusted the pipes and made a huge mess!!

  4. We know your plumbing in s.l.c. has been a bit dicey lately with the bathroom remodel... instead of stopping the leaks, you should consider hiring Zumthor to turn them into an aesthetic experience of beauty.
    "Entrance is through an underground tunnel where the iron richness of the Valser water first shows as it pours from wall-mounted copper pipes and stains the stone that lies beneath its flow."

  5. white robes?

    you shoulda tossed it and let 'em hang out, opa and oma style.

  6. Damn. This is really cool that you got to see and experience this place as it was intended. It would be on my must-see list. The photos really capture it. Great shots as usual. Envy meter = 10.


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