As part of our inspiring buildings series MEB Design Director Paul Weston, who leads on Wellbeing & Health communities, reflects on the inspirational Thermal Baths in Vals, Switzerland designed by Pritzker Prize winning architect Peter Zumthor. Check out his blog below.
During October 2018 I travelled to Vals, Switzerland to visit the Thermal Baths, competed in 1996. I was struck by the reasons I keep returning to this place high in the Swiss Alps and why it represents a special place in my life.
The first time I saw the baths was when I arrived at Manchester University in 1997. It had just been completed and featured in the architectural journals of the day. Aesthetically and intellectually the alluring images whet the appetite for architects internationally but what I saw on my first visit was that there was much more to the project than just pure aesthetics.
The most powerful aspect of the building is the people. This might sound obvious but a quick google photo search requires some searching before a single human is seen. Consequently, entering the baths comes as somewhat of a shock. The quartzite slab benches are covered in towels, dressing gowns, slippers, books (admittedly greys, whites and blacks).
Suddenly, the building makes sense. The scale is put in perspective and the aesthetics give way to a sense of exploration. The only other buildings I have had the same feeling is in a cathedral or church. Once the sense of awe subsides and people start to orientate themselves a sense of fun and exploration takes over. The sight and sound of children, young people and older persons from all over the world laughing, relaxing, chatting and reflecting together gives me great pleasure and sense of wellbeing.
It is easy to think on the surface that the baths would be inaccessible to anyone but the rich and aesthetic. I can’t pretend that accessing the baths is cheap but entry is reasonable if staying in the village. This connection means that it is possible to stay in reasonably priced accommodation and enjoy this feat of architecture.
Being within a community is another reason to return to Vals. The view of the building set against the 1960’s holiday apartment blocks is a shock at first but when viewed with the backdrop of an old Swiss town the building softens into the landscape. The impact of this building on the wider community has been positive for local people and visitors alike. The use of extraordinary architecture clearly has an impact both in a civic sense but also something deeper.
The whole building is a testament to how architectural quality can release powerful feeling. As I alluded to earlier there is a connection to the feel of religious buildings. One of quiet reverence and praise. Whilst the building was completed 20 years ago the cave like feel of the pools takes you back to primeval state. Feelings which are heightened by the ritual of entry and changing from enclosure to the outdoor pools, to nature, mountains and village.
The combined sense of life, community and experience to me make this the most extraordinary building and project – themes that are important in my work and that of MEB Design. Now all is left is to plan my next trip!