Turning nature into prize winning architecture

Article by Natalie Holmes
Therme Vals hotel Vals Graubünden Sanja B
Image credit: Sanja B via Wikimedia Commons

“Built into a hillside with a grass roof, from some angles it seems to be cut out of the mountain. Looking at it can be like a game of hide and seek.”

Originally built in 1893, Therme Vals started life as a 60-bed spa hotel that took advantage of the area’s natural geothermal waters. Tucked snugly in the Swiss Alps in the mountainous canton of Graubünden, the site has since expanded to a 1000-bed, multi-building luxury hotel campus, with the monolithic style Thermal Rock Spa as its centerpiece.

“The building is completely atypical, not like your usual international boutique hotel spa,” says Franz Jenowein, Director in JLL’s Global Sustainability Research team. “Many buildings have amazing design which makes them stand out from their surroundings, but Therme Vals stands out precisely because of the way it is integrated into the landscape.”

Designed by Swiss architect Peter Zumthor, Therme Vals has become something of a modern Swiss masterpiece, inspired by the likes of Frank Lloyd Wright’s famous house, Falling water, as well as the surrounding landscape.

“The architect incorporated elements of Bauhaus and Minimalism, but with his own sensitivity, creating a unique combination; a kind of soft brutalism of stone cladding, with water compensating for the hardness of the rock,” says Jenowein.

Evoking the looming mountains, the walls are clad with 60,000 one-metre-long slabs of a locally sourced type of granite known as quartzite or gneiss, formed when grey quartz sandstone crystals are transformed by huge pressure.

To Jenowein, it’s a well-chosen material, not only because of its local heritage, but also the lucent qualities of the quartzite that complements the baths’ tranquil atmosphere where time fades away and the focus is on restoration and relaxation. “As the light changes throughout the day, it creates a beautiful color play on the surface,” he says.

A man-made oasis

The building is a sustainability icon for the built environment, with its locally quarried stone, harnessing of geothermal and solar warmth, and use of natural light. “The materials, how they’re used and the structure’s orientation make it extremely low impact and highly efficient,” says Jenowein.

Therme Vals is not just impressive on the outside. The building’s stone interior, housing numerous pools of mineral rich waters in varying temperatures, is an experience in itself; “like going into the belly of the mountain,” according to Jenowein. “The cavernous spaces connected by labyrinthine tunnels interplay darkness and light, but at the same time the design is so modern and elegant. Just as you feel like you’re going deep down into the earth you emerge to these bright, sweeping views across the valley. The effect is both dramatic and uplifting.”

Its enigmatic design has won it dozens of architecture awards as well as netting its architect, Peter Zumthor, won the prestigious Pritzker Prize, in 2009.

Therme Vals is not just a building to be admired, it also has a functional role to play in the local community. The spa itself provides jobs to residents of the nearby 1,000-strong village and tourism helps to boost the local economy.

And for its affluent guests seeking to get away from the world, the spa has a strong experiential focus that takes the ritual of bathing and elevates it into something almost mystical. “Today, there’s a big focus on the occupant’s experience, and how well a building makes you feel,” concludes Jenowein. “We see this trend across architecture and design these days. In that sense, Therme Vals was way ahead of its time.”

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