Breakfast in Vals

From Escape, Spring 2022

It’s useful to be reminded what great architecture can achieve, to be moved by it, because as an industry, architecture isn’t always that moving. Like every business, it has its awkward corporate events, its veneers and personalities. In 2008, like many others seeking the architecturally divine in a stone pool, we made the pilgrimage to Therme Vals, the spa designed by Peter Zumthor in the Swiss Alps. It turns out that this was a good time to go. In the years that followed, the project’s social ambitions were watered down by industry, by the business of a luxury destination.

The Therme Vals pools complex in Graubünden opened in 1996. Janet Jackson shot the video for Every Time there two years later. Fashionably, I went a decade later with my boyfriend, Nick. At that time, I was working as the writer for an architecture practice. The studio had its own library and I used to borrow their grey, clothbound Zumthor book of Hélène Binet prints and abstract charcoal sketches, even though I couldn’t make much sense of them as plans. Still, I kept the book on my desk like a talisman, hoping it might ward off the architects with financial districts I didn’t want to think about. We went to Vals again in 2011. The experience of the spa was much the same, although we took a different route via Belgium.

Because we didn’t have our son yet, the idea of throwing a tent in the back of the car and setting off across the Channel with no fixed itinerary was plausible. An excuse to tour Champagne, watch a cycle race in Luxembourg, visit friends in Stuttgart, camp by Lake Zurich, and swim in the river in Berne. All before Brexit. I’d like to say we did it in style, but we did it in a racing green Ford Focus with the imprint of the hard shoulder of a German autobahn down one side and a wing mirror stuck on with duct tape.

I’ll skip most of the detail on the road trip, until we get to the turn in the small town of Ilanz. There’s a photo of the sat nav when we followed Via Crappa Grossa. From here, the road wound through valleys, past early summer meadows and clear water, across a narrow bridge by a precipice, then through a concrete tunnel with windows on one side. When you arrive in Vals, you find the source of the river – the first thing you see is the bottling operation for Valser mineral water. This industry quickly gives way to traditional pitched-roof chalets against grassy slopes dotted with shepherd’s huts. Then the spa, on your right as you come into the village, can’t miss it.

Bed and breakfast

On our first visit, we rented a room in an annexe attached to the main hotel, the Selva House. The room was a clean, simple pineclad twin and we could use the facilities in the main hotel. The second time, we had a double with a balcony in the hotel, but the style and price were similar. I’m not sure these affordable options still exist. And by affordable, I mean relatively, it’s still the world’s most expensive country and our car snacks had to go a long way.

We ate breakfast in the Red Restaurant, looking out over the grass roof of the pool complex. We often talk about that spread: the local cheeses, homemade breads, pastries and conserves; the darkest rye, the crunchiest, nuttiest crust, the freshest fruit and berries. More than a decade later, we can exchange a look over a tepid hotel egg without even having to whisper it.

Therme Vals came about because the owner of the original spa hotel, built in the sixties, went bankrupt. In the eighties, the Vals community bought it and commissioned their internationally-renowned local architect Peter Zumthor to design a hydrotherapy facility and renovate the existing complex. It was a social as much as a commercial enterprise. The hotel lobby and dining area still had the feel of a slightly retro sixties lounge bar, but more refined. Anything superfluous had been taken out and the space pared back to velvet, a Lynchian blue carpet and the panorama of mountains beyond the glass. Today, the hotel is called 7132, after the postcode. Looking at the website, that same space now has cushions and many, many more surfaces, which look variously leathery, woody, furry, shiny and monochrome.

The spa

This is a long preamble to the thermal pools themselves. The building is of the landscape, dug into the hillside, with walls built from layers of locally-quarried grey quartzite, which emerge like a smooth, striated cliff. Back then, the entrance was a discreet doorway under a blue neon sign; the hotel was up a ramp on one level, the spa was below. Today, it looks like there’s a grander sense of arrival for guests via an expansive port-cochere beneath a sweep of white concrete. Now, I see, the hotel also has its own fleet of limousines, helipad and a branded Airbus EC130 helicopter, presumably not intended for locals or low budget architecture enthusiasts.

There were a few surprises, beginning with the changing rooms, which were lined in royal carriage red mahogany cabinetry. I didn’t expect that. I don’t know what I did expect from Peter Zumthor there – a stone slab and hessian curtain maybe. This two-sided cubicle becomes a portal from the world of the hotel to the mountain. Once you go inside, there is a very loose sense of time; no obvious clocks, only the shadows moving across the landscape to orient you. No phones. We stayed for as long as felt right.

The heart of the building is the top-lit central pool, which acts like a submerged square, with a body-temperature warmth that helps you rebalance after some of the extremes of the waters around it. Then there are more intimate rooms, where you can lower yourself onto an underwater bench and listen to the sounds of the overflow fall down the metal rills. In one tall chamber, accessed by a channel, choral chanting plays, drawing you into some mystic communion with the depths of the Alps. One of the baths is fragrant with floating petals, there are some very intense high showers and a darkened room where you can drink the mineral water from brass cups.

There were other unexpected moments, like the heavy rubber curtains you push aside to pass through the different heat stages of the steam room, as if searching for a quiet corner in a Berlin techno club. I enjoyed the outdoor pool, its connection with the inside, swimming from indoors to out, resting under the water jets, then back, then out again, then back in as the temperature dropped, which it did even in June. There was always the feeling that there’s something you haven’t seen, some hidden room behind a wall, another solarium or pool. In our case there was: an entire suite of treatment rooms that we never visited. Still, I don’t think the design intent is to confuse you; rather to allow gradual discovery of different spaces. In that sense it’s more labyrinth than maze.

Looking around, where you don’t see dry stone, you see wet stone, footprints, a mountain or solid brass, a wooden recliner or white towel. There’s no plastic, apart from the yellow pass strapped to your wrist, no unnecessary clutter or detail to distract from the immersive experience. Zumthor’s solicitude for this place in the valley, his home, translates into a very simple, elemental poetry of water, light and stone.

The town

After the spa, we couldn’t do much, we fell asleep in our room, wrapped in towelling robes like rosy-cheeked drunks. The next day, we rolled out and explored Vals on foot. We ate fondue in a restaurant with pine benches. We heard of a free walking tour of the town and hurried to a cobbled square to tag along with the group that had already assembled. The guide walked us around the old blacksmiths forge, a woodworking studio and pointed out details of traditional buildings. We didn’t understand anything, but we nodded appreciatively, too embarrassed to admit at such a late stage that we didn’t speak German.

I had hoped that one day we might go back, maybe take our son. Perhaps splash out and stay in one of the dramatic Zumthor-designed rooms with dark stucco walls, or stay in the town and buy a day pass. But at the moment, if you’re not a hotel guest, there are limited tickets for limited hours, limited to those popular weekend break days of Mondays and Tuesdays*. There have been many changes since 2012, when the complex was bought by local developer, Remo Stoffel. Today, it would be easy to mistake the name, 7132 for the price. I just don’t know if the experience of the pools, that deep sense of connection with nature and your own body, could drown out the hubris and clutter of wealth. In a 2017 interview, even Zumthor said that the place has been destroyed. “The social project is dead.”

Writing this two years into the pandemic, having rarely left London, any travel is almost beyond imagination. But while in any practical sense, the idea of Vals seems increasingly remote, the experience of those spaces and that breakfast still sustain me. In my mind, I often go back to how the place feels, smells, the atmosphere, the conviviality of sharing the pools with the other bathers, and remember the freedom of giving ourselves over to wallowing, without a phone. What architecture can achieve: a joyous shot at how things ought to be.

Sarah Simpkin is a writer based in London

*Since publication, the opening hours for non-guest visitors has been extended:

One thought on “Breakfast in Vals

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: