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A symphony of the senses at Zumthor’s Thermal Baths in the Swiss Alps

Following Milan Design Week, our editor paid a visit to 7132 Hotel in Vals, Switzerland to experience Peter Zumthor’s famous thermal baths.

A symphony of the senses at Zumthor’s Thermal Baths in the Swiss Alps

Vals, a small village in the Swiss Alps with a population of just 1000, has become something of a pilgrimage site for architecture enthusiasts. The dramatic valley is home to Peter Zumthor’s renowned thermal baths, considered a milestone work of modern architecture – a true symphony of the senses.

The baths are attached to 7132 Hotel, and I was lucky enough to stay in a room designed by Zumthor. This stop came not only after the overabundance of design greatness in Milan Design Week, but also a slightly less glamorous – but no less striking – architectural site, Saint Benedict Chapel in the village of Sumvitg. This small chapel was designed by Zumthor in 1988. On a snowy, quiet midweek day, its presence was moving in its simplicity – unadorned, creaking internal timber floorboards, and the external cladding that speaks so well to its local environment.

Less contemplative religious site and more keyed into the local ski scene, Vals Thermal Baths are nevertheless an architectural masterpiece defined by an atmosphere of meditative calm. The baths comprise a series of spaces that, individually, offer different sensory experiences revolving around water; taken as a whole, the design is a labyrinth that cumulatively creates an effect much greater than the sum of its parts. To visit the baths is to experience what architecture can do experientially, both in space and time.

Zumthor designed the thermal baths in 1996 and they were granted protected heritage status just two years later. At almost 30 years of age, then, the first thing to say is that the materials have aged with an expected richness. The initial entry corridor takes the visitor slowly down through a concrete-lined space where the presence of water gradually changes from an aural to a visual one. Streams of water flowing from the walls have created mesmerising patterns of wear on the material, full of incredible rusty reds and oranges.

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While there is no set order to a visit – indeed, the best advice I can give is to resist the urge to meticulously plan one, instead just letting yourself wander thoughtlessly from room to room – the natural first stop involves a series of dark steam rooms. Reminiscent of a North African hammam, these connected spaces get progressively darker and hotter as one passes through.

Moving on to the central area, a generosity of height and light makes it feel more like an open swimming pool. It’s only when you start to really explore that you realise how many different spatial experiences are on offer – narrow passageways here, high ceilings there; hot water one moment, cold the next. Through it all, the materials are a constant point of fixation, including stone and concrete. With its years of ageing, you can also now enjoy noticing small things such as the subtle colour changes around the water level on the walls outside.

An unhurried visit takes in mountains views one moment and dark, enclosed, almost claustrophobic spaces the next. For those lucky enough to stay at the hotel on the right night, midnight swims are also available – enchanting in the sub-zero moonlit snowfall.

Several other notable architects have been invited over the years to contribute to the site’s design pedigree. In the House of Architects next to the main building of the 7132 Hotel 5S, Kengo Kuma, Tadao Ando and Thom Mayne have created rooms alongside Zumthor, whose ten rooms are especially striking in their use of colourful stucco lustro, a plastering technique from the Italian Renaissance, as well as hand-painted curtains made of Habotai silk.

7132 Hotel also offers a comprehensive range of hospitality options, including 7132 Red led by Executive Chef, Matthias Schmidberger, and Restaurant Manager, Matteo Sgarbi, and 7132 Blue Bar. Located at an altitude of 1252 metres, the hotel has a snug fireplace space next to its wider bar area, while the more luxuriously inclined might opt for arrival in the hotel’s very own helicopter.

7132 Hotel

Julien Balmer

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