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SWITZERLAND

Stunning in stone

High in the Alps, the Vals spa wraps itself into the landscape, focusing on the natural. The contemporary bathhouse is both stunning and full of surprises.

September 14, 2008|Susan Spano | Times Staff Writer

VALS, SWITZERLAND — Rain pelted the windshield as I drove up the Vals Valley. Waterfalls coursed over cliff faces, and the tops of the Alps were lost in fog.

Not the kind of weather that walkers who come to Vals in the summer long for. But the rain suited me. I was headed for a spa about 120 miles southeast of Zurich, where I planned to spend the next 24 hours.

I admit it: I like fancy spas and will go out of my way for a Brittany seaweed wrap or a four-handed ayurvedic massage.

But I didn't come to Vals for that -- at least, not strictly so. I came to see the stunning, contemporary bathhouse designed by Peter Zumthor.

The Swiss architect is much admired in professional circles but is not as well-known to the public as Frank Gehry or Norman Foster. Most of Zumthor's completed projects are outside the U.S. and the architect, who declined to be interviewed for this article, isn't interested in media coverage.

But Zumthor has written this about Therme Vals: "Our spa is no fun fair with the latest technical gadgets, water games, jets, sprays and slides but focuses on the quiet, primary experience of bathing, cleansing, relaxing . . . the feeling of water and physical contact with primordial stone."

Water and stone are all around the Vals Valley. As I drove toward Vals, about 15 miles from the highway turnoff, the clouds occasionally parted, revealing farmhouses roofed with gray rock. Below, a swollen river tossed and turned in its rocky bed.

Eventually, the valley got so narrow that I thought the road would have to stop. But it kept going, as I discovered after I misunderstood directions.

So I crossed the Valserine River, which feeds the Rhine, and crawled up the mountainside, reaching a one-lane tunnel that looked like a mine shaft. Finally, I stopped at a little snack shop at Verfreila, where a dam had been built on the Valserine around 1960. Clearly, I'd gone too far, because the girl at the cash register looked at me as if I were crazy when I asked where to park for the spa.

Therme Vals is actually a little downriver from the village, near the Valser water bottling plant, in a collection of high-rise buildings that looks like a community college campus. You can't see the Zumthor bathhouse from the road because it's built into the hillside. And it's not well-marked. But that's my only criticism.

When the Vals community decided to redo the spa, there were grand plans for a whole new complex, replacing the dated hotel buildings constructed in the 1960s. But financial concerns meant the plan would have to be scaled back. Ultimately, Zumthor redesigned the bathhouse and simply modified existing hotel facilities adjacent to it.

The most desirable accommodations are in a curving, white, midcentury modern building that also houses the spa's formal restaurant. Rooms there are called temporaries and are minimally decorated using Zumthor's black lacquer furniture. They have picture windows, clever Swiss doors that can be opened along the top or side frames and terraces that overlook the felt-green mountain flank on the opposite side of the valley.

The building is connected to the bathhouse by an underground passageway, so hotel guests can wear robes to the spa, which is reserved for their exclusive use from 7 to 11 a.m. daily. I planned to go as soon as I arrived, but first sat drinking hot tea in the lobby lounge just to unwind. From a window, I watched the rain come down on a field of grass, which is actually the roof of the spa.

EXPLORING

The story of how Zumthor came to create a modern architectural landmark in a lost little Swiss valley traditionally devoted to dairy farming (and now all organic) is a happy one.

Blessed with a hot spring rich in calcium sulfate and hydrogen carbonate, Vals has long attracted health-seekers. The community, which owns the spring, got its first spa hotel in 1893. It catered to people plagued by rheumatism and migraines who came here to drink or bathe in the water.

A new spa complex and affiliated bottling plant were built around 1970. (Two-thirds of the water that comes from the spring is used by the plant, purchased in 2002 by Coca-Cola.) Therme Vals never got the traffic of St.-Moritz and Zermatt, fell into debt and was taken over by a bank.

That would have been the end of it, but villagers wanted their bathhouse. Fortunately, they had the money to keep it going, thanks to revenue from the generation of electricity.

STONE-CLAD

Their choice of Zumthor as architect was inspired. He developed his design by exploring the materials at hand, chiefly gneiss, a metamorphic rock that ranges in color from grayish blue to green, with occasional streaks of feldspar, quartz and mica. The gneiss is quarried nearby and used, roughly hewn, on village rooftops.

Zumthor experimented with different ways of cutting the stone and ultimately used 60,000 slabs of it, including massive ceiling blocks with skylights and polished planks for flooring.

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