This is an excerpt from Schwarz’s thesis titled:
«Peter Zumthor, Lieu, Atmosphères, Expérience».
The piece investigates the relationship between architecture and the human body, physically and psychically in the context of Zumthor's Thermes de Vals (1996)
I step out of the flaming bath. My body is still smoking and I burn from the interior. I just spent a long moment in water heated to 42 degrees celsius. The atmosphere is much cooler now, as I stand in the twilight before a new basin. In this extrusion of Gneiss, which forms a right angle and directs us to the next step of our journey, I can read that the water is at 14 degrees celsius. This simple signpost gives me chills, awakening in me the memories of bad experiences and resistance against constraint. I remember that the Romans had already invented this idea of alternating between extremely hot and cold baths, and practiced this ritual often. One must surpass the simple physical pain and try to find a mental comfort within; it is more than a physical experience, but rather one which assures the dominance of the soul over the flesh. Well-being will come just after this realization. How does one approach such an experience? I admit that I was tempted to leap into the bath, a solution which would eliminate any possibility of escape. Or perhaps I should proceed step by step, allowing my skin to slowly acclimate. Should I start with the foot, then descend until the knees and hips? Fear freezes me. Do I really have to do this? When I think about it, no one is forcing me, no one is looking, I am alone in this basin. Will my body even sustain such a temperature? If yes, for how long?
I start, having made my decision to commit, comforted by the idea that the cold temperature is good for circulation. My toes are emerged and immediately contract with the cold. I am up to my ankles now, my knees already trembling though they are not even submerged. My jaws clench. I descend to the hips, and the cold paralyzes me. My rib cage expands, my lungs feeling as though they are going to burst through my sides. Pain, then fear invade my body yet again. I am already thinking too much. The space is tall and narrow, the only expansion is vertical, and the bottom of the basin is too dark to see. I finally descend rather abruptly to the last steps and find myself in the middle of the bath. A bluish cement wall separates the space, and affirms the chilling atmosphere. My body seems to divide within itself, each part having acclimated and reacted differently to this new environment. I can no longer feel my extremities, and my heart beats quickly in an attempt to circulate warm blood to my furthest organs. I can finally walk, pushing the limits of which I am normally used to. Rather quickly, I exit the bath.
It is important to specify in this section the notion of a unique atmosphere for each bath, due to their respective physical characteristics but also to our own personal experiences, origins, and cultures. The atmosphere I found at the heart of these thermal baths was different at each moment, at each instant. It seems to me that there exists a true atmosphere when one experiences the baths; we will all have a different sensation in each bath, just as we will have a preference for a bath in particular. But I do not feel the overarching atmosphere of the architecture in its entirety, what Peter Zumthor spoke of.
I remember the long path between my room and the entry of the baths. To access the baths from the main building of the hotel, one must go by way of an underground tunnel, by a basement. There is no door that leads us, as the entrance is hidden. The corridor is nothing more than a tunnel, low, narrow and black. A turnstile acts as a threshold, connecting the corridor coming from the hotel and another called “The Drinking Room”, which brings us gradually to the baths. On the right wall of the corridor there are five brass pipes dripping hot water, and the left side is punctuated by five doorways. Diagonal to these, at the other end of the dressing rooms, is another dark-wooded doorway. The cloakroom is closed by a heavy black leather curtain that both separates and connects the two areas. The act ofchanging becomes a sort of theatrical event: the moment we pass through the curtain we enter the scene, where we simultaneously become both actors and spectators. Once through the curtain, we find ourselves on a long and narrow balcony. From here we have a view of the whole space, especially towards the level of baths below. We can see walls, blocks (all composed of Gneiss), allowing us to glimpse certain spaces otherwise hidden. Mingled within these interior spaces, there is also a direct view of the exterior, accentuated by the daylight that licks the Gneiss stones and promises an escape just beyond. The edge of the balcony is marked by a brass guardrail, and the bars are fixed to the ground by pieces of bronze cast and connected by a flat brass piece used as a handrail.
My first reaction was to follow the handrail in the direction of the descent to reach the lower level where the baths are accessible. From the top of the balcony I remember a strong attraction for what was happening outside: the relationship of the space to the sky, to the mountain, to the surrounding nature. Once I made my way downstairs, my instinct was then to approach the baths and contemplate the space, the architecture and the sublime perspectives created by the materialityand by the composition and layout. We will first speak of the various baths and how they awakened my senses, and then of my reflections on the external bath.
The Flower Bath awakens our sense of smell, by scent as well as taste. These senses merge, and with each rich odor I remember distinguishing between different intensities of citrus. These different scents awakened in me a certain freshness despite being in water heated to 33 degrees celsius. There is artificial lighting below the level of the bath water, creating a magical spectacle: the concrete wall which emerges above the level of the water is cast in black, just like the vertical walls, and below us the seat is tinted white, following the natural horizon of the ground. The flower petals float to the surface of the water and cast a brilliant shine against a golden yellow glow. This contrast between black and white mark a certain neutrality in the composition of the colors; it shows the importance of materiality at play in conjunction with the composition of the blocks and the water. From the moment our first foot passes the extrusion of Gneiss, we can feel the smell emanating from the room in which we are slowly entering.
The odor, with its seemingly artificial nature is nevertheless pleasant, and evolves and strengthens during the descent into the water. It seemed to hang in the air, escaping from behind a small metal box secured to the wall spraying bursts of lavender essential oil. Flower petals and pleasant perfumes in public baths were already in existence for bathers during the Middle Ages. The block that contains the Flower Bath has its own shower, in front of which one passes before turning at right angles to enter or leave the bath. After one has been completely immersed, the petals do not necessarily attach to the body nor bathing suit. This particular bath allowed me to discover another hidden one, which was still unknown to me at the time: the Sound Bath. It is found at the foot of the ramp that allows us to pass either to the upper level of the entrance or to the changing rooms found at the lower level of the baths.
The Sound Bath is also called the Resonance Chamber, or the Source Cave. This bath is the most rooted to the project: its access is so narrow and discreet that it seems hidden. Steps sink into the water, and I find myself facing this wall which is like a barrier directing us towards a small opening extending into yet another narrow corridor. When I enter it, it is impossible to hold myself upright. It is a strange feeling, having half my body in water and the other half exposed, hunched over due to the height of the passage. I remember feeling a sentiment I had never felt before, having never been in such a narrow space and immersed in water. Water as we know it generally relates to the vast expanse of the sea, the ocean, a lake or a river. Keeping this in mind, I was able to continue into this small square space, 2.6 meters wide and 6 meters high. I am reminded of the transition between this passage and the great emptiness around. I felt so compressed, so oppressed in this small passage that once I was out, I was overwhelmed by the sense of vertical expansion. This corridor cannot be seen when walking, as it is a narrow passage covered by a single slab that allows for only one person to enter or exit at a time. At the end of the passage, where the walls are made of polished stones, the space opens and surrounds layer upon layer of broken stone. Some are rounded in a convex shape almost to their breaking point, while others are rather concave, obeying more natural fracture lines.
A horizontal brass bar forms a line just above the surface of the water, where the light rises from the bottom of the basin and from the middle of the concrete ceiling. I remember that we all had the same instinct, the same urge to lean against the brass bar while looking upwards. I think this can be called a “reflex”, one induced by the baths where the height of the narrow space naturally attracts the attention of the eye. The reflection of the sounds between the parallel walls amplify certain frequencies and their harmonics. This produces a fuller sound, my own foreign voice affirming the quality of the space as a resonance chamber. The idea of space as a musical instrument, a resonating body reflecting the frequencies of a song, sounds like an organ pipe whose sound is stifled by a lid.
Peter Zumthor likes to say that his construction is made of tables and blocks. In his view, these are the fundamenta elements of his projects. This can be easily observed, at least for the stacks of stones that attract the eye. As discussed earlier, it is these blocks that, side-byside,
constitute the structural system of the building and roof. While the overall appearance is very poetic, Zumthor does not hesitate to dissect these elements in order to propose its technical and constructive description of the entire space. I like to use the terms “horizontal” and “vertical” to describe the project from a more sensitive point of view, which will be detailed below.
When looking at the structure of the building from the outside, the composition and the plan offers the following perspectives: the alignment of these blocks under a flat and homogenous roof creates a succession of viewpoints that cut through space. If we go a few meters further we discover that these blocks of similar appearance are not identical; their proportions are different and slightly offset. It makes sense, therefore, why it is difficult to describe an overall perspective for the space. Access to the outdoor bath is made by way of a simple door that clearly defines the interior and exterior space. We now find ourselves in an exterior made simply of stone, water, and the light of the sky. A discreet connection with the interior is maintained by a slippery corridor, turning at right angles between two stone walls.
It is this link between the spaces created by the water which makes us wonder what it would be like to pass to the other side of the wall. The atmosphere will be different, and this curiosity awakens our senses. If water can serve as a linking mechanism, it can also act as a threshold. The inner embarkment leading us to the exterior overlooking the water is clearly perceived as a demarcation between these two seemingly solitary spaces. By its omnipresence, the stone here affirms its prominence. It seems heavy, powerful, clear. The dark gray Gneiss is almost black, ensuring its dominance over the other elements. Stacked in columns of ten to reach the roof that it supports, one can still read the stone’s horizontality: it is indeed cut of stones of varying thickness and arranged according to a rhythm that seems random. This gives the impression that each stone is unique, adding to the strength of the project (which is in fact built with only three types of stone thickness: 3.1cm, 4.7cm, or 6.3cm). This variance alone suffices to maintain the illusion of individuality. The horizontality is reinforced by the overhanging roof, which seems to happily pass from one supporting block to the next. One can feel the weight of the roof slab, while not necessarily fully understanding how it is maintained. We thus have the strange impression that this thick slab is almost floating between the blocks. It is a combination of these elements found within the strata of the stone which shape the composition. One can notice that the whole of the project is so perfectly arranged that if one of these elements was removed, the general atmosphere would be quite different. Elements are often anecdotal, and the seating of this space is no exception: their curvature is perfectly molded to fit the interstices between the blocks. They face the very nature they overhang, inserted in the heart of the environment of the main structure. Paradoxically, these seats are not comfortable, as if the architect wanted to encourage the observation of nature rather than the encouragement of sleep. They also help to restore the human scale as a whole, weaving the link between the natural mineral of the earth and the living. Breaking the dynamics of the strata, the seating serves as lightest in contrast to the heaviness of the blocks. Their shadows also create a new atmosphere, which I will call “invisible nature”: an intangible nature composed of light. This light plays an important role for us and, in its natural expression, can arouse so much emotion. At this moment we were reminded of something so simple and so obvious, yet a concept that we often have a tendency to forget.
These shadows have a particular importance in this project, since they are easily confused with those made by the guardrails. Their fusion is so beautiful that I surprised even myself by spending several minutes simply observing them. The walls seemed to be the only vertical elements in this space, though they share this inherent composition with the guardrails. This can also be found on the
“Rocher-terrasse” or under the morning light of the East, where they project their shadows on a large wall of stones. These shadows are intertwined with three brass pipes emerging from the basin, bent in the direction of the water. The water gushes intensely at dawn, at the exact moment when the bell tower of the village rings its seventh blow. Thesereasons reinforced my feeling that this particular bath had the strongest effect on me. It is in this bath that I also spent the most time, acknowledging the numerous relationships with both the landscape and the minerals. This is not because it lies outside, but because it is judiciously placed at an angle which opens up generously to its environment.
It is also here that one catches one’s breath, perceiving nature from all angles. The “windows” frame different views on the mountain, and the horizontal roof accentuates the relationship with the sky, a presence already reflected in the water. These perspectives are created by the different existing frameworks, composed mainly by the layout of the blocks and their relationship to the roof. I remember that it was striking to see the various existing plans; I looked at this space as a photograph. I saw first the foreground made of the architectural framework in which I was bathing, then a row a trees just beyond, and finally the buildings facing the thermal baths. In this same continuity we could see the chalets scattered on the opposite slope of the mountain. The fractured scale occurred when we realized the proximity of the mountain that faced us and the totality of its presence. Another mountain was visible just behind, and finally the totality of the sky united each horizontal fracture cut by the roof of the edifice.