Journey to the Center of a Bathhouse

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Every once in a while, I like to indulge in looking back to a rather perplexing creation of Peter Zumthor, the bathhouse at Therme Vals.  And what a peculiar bathhouse it is ­– like an enigma wrapped in a riddle wrapped in a mountainside.  Wait, it is the mountain.  No wait, it’s under the mountain.  Dammit, what was I doing again?  In any case, it sure as hell projects from the side of a mountain, in all its stone glory, looking more like one of those bunkers on Omaha Beach circa early summer 1944 than any place associated with peace and tranquility.

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And I’ll be damned if that magnificent stone structure doesn’t play tricks on your soul.  Designed with the idea of recreating the ancient ceremony of public bathing, Therme Vals employs what we might call a “disruptive application” in its use of stone–in conjunction with the traditional bathhouse typology–that creates a simultaneously open, semi-opened and enclosed space.  Set in the Southeast of Switzerland, locally quarried Valser quartzite stone slabs were buried into the mountainside to create floors and walls that define a specific order, slicing through the earth and directing the tired, dirty, or simply curious into its bowels and their thermal spring waters.

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As our fearless leader Blaine Brownell explains, “A disruptive application is an unexpected replacement of a conventional design or construction practice with a new one,” or in “the methods used to achieve the result—such as in the robotic fabrication of brick panels instead of traditional hand-laying.” Though I can’t say for certain whether or not the methods used to produce the quartzite stone were disruptive in this way, the application is disrupted in the perception of what it should be doing.  If you were Louis Khan, and you asked a stone wall underground what it wanted to be?  It would say it wanted to be a stone wall holding up that ground.  And when you descend into that ground through an array of stone, what do you expect?  You expect that stone to support the weight of the world trying so desperately to follow your path.  But what does Zumthor to with it?  He separates the stone from any association with support, in the one place you really want to see it.  He separates it where wall should meet roof.  A most certainly unexpected, albeit unsettling, replacement of conventional design.

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Therme Vals is certainly the product of one mans imagination of and dominance over what traditional material can and should be, as well as how that material may be transformed in and of itself.  Zumthor describes the baths as “…building in the stone, building with the stone, into the mountain, building out of the mountain, being inside the mountain.”  He takes you on one unexpected journey to the center.  But Therme Vals is also disruptive in another way, the very nature of which creates your perception of lethargic stone and generates the uncertain.

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Light gives life to the three dimensional world.  Without it, there is no definition, no sense of weight.  As opposed to the omnipotence of its fortress like presence on the mountainside, the drab quality of the stone exterior is brought to life with an elegant harnessing of light–through slits created in the strategic separation of wall and roof–as it transforms that very same stone, submerged in water, from within.  And therein lies the disruption in Zumthor’s application of stone.  While it would not be wrong to assume you were actually entering the bowels of something, most likely dark, it would most likely seem inconceivable that you could assume the inverse experience of your expectations.  It’s not everyday that you descend into a mountain (there’s actually never any day that I do so, but I digress…)  to find it filled with natural light and more vivid than the surface from which you descended.  It’s more like something out of a science fiction novel, like Jules Verne’s bioluminescent ocean at the center of the earth.

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(My other fearless leader, George Mason, staring in bewilderment at the Hollywood recreation of the unexpected, but your mind can do it better with a little help from Verne…)

“The vault suspended above my head, the sky as it were, seemed to be made of vast clouds, moving […] Clear shadows stood out on their lower curves and often, between two separate strata, a ray of remarkable intensity slipped through to us. And yet it was not the sun, for its light gave no heat. The effect was sad, sovereignly melancholy. Instead of a firmament bright with stars, I felt the granite vault above these clouds weighing down on me: this space, immense as it was, would not have sufficed for the orbit of even the humblest satellite.”

As Brownell goes on to explain, disruptive applications “are defined by the fulfillment of the unexpected: an aberration or mutation that upsets and displaces the status quo.”  And this is precisely what makes Therme Vals so disruptive beyond that of which any material application or method of production alone can produce; it physically and elementally disrupts the expectations of the mind.  It’s one of those riddles that have no answer.

R. H. Holley

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