At the Vals spa in Switzerland, a duet of water and stone

LA Times | Travel

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 ...

By Susan Spano // 09.10.08

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."

Swiss architect Peter Zumthor's best-known projects

Swiss architect Peter Zumthor taught at the Southern California Institute of Architecture and Harvard's Graduate School of Design. His studio is in Haldenstein, Switzerland. His best-known completed projects include:

* Art Museum, Bregenz, Austria, near Lake Constance, completed in 1997,

* St. Benedict Chapel, in the village of Sumvitg, near Chur, Switzerland; constructed of timber, 1989

* Spittelhof housing complex, Biel-Benken, Switzerland, near Basel, completed in 1996.

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.


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.


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.

I tried to photograph the spa, but it eluded me. Only its 20-foot front wall is clearly visible from the outside, though I climbed around the building and finally got a shot of the outdoor pool from the winding lane above.

I put my camera away and proceeded inside. Then I donned my robe and entered a long, narrow, black corridor where drinking water spews from brass pipes on one side, staining the wall with rust-red Rorschachs. The other side is lined with changing rooms for the many non-hotel guests who come in from walks or for a bath after work. Men and women bathe together, so swimming suits are obligatory.

The corridor turns a corner and yields to a cantilevered platform above what looks like a postmodern cave complex, all smooth stone and sharp angles. From there, I could see only the main indoor pool below, at that moment full of kissing couples, gossiping women and frolicking kids, their voices amplified in the stone echo chamber of the spa.

At first disappointed by the crowd, I gradually came to appreciate how well-used the facility is, populist compared with, say, a Canyon Ranch or a Golden Door.

Instead of building big pools, Zumthor created a network of small, variously shaped baths with water at different temperatures and surprising features you get to know only by exploring.

Hidden around the corner from the main pool was the small, 91-degree Fahrenheit flower bath, illuminated from below and scattered with marigold petals. Nearby, I stepped down into another pool, this one 95 degrees, connected by a tunnel to the high-ceilinged sound bath where you have only to hum to produce music as resonant as that of a church organ.

Another staircase leads to a water channel connected by a curtain to the outdoor pool, 97 degrees in winter and 86 to 91 degrees in summer. People relieve tense shoulder and back muscles by standing under water gushing from a row of curving brass pipes.

There are also terraces lined with Zumthor-designed chaise longues, sweat chambers, a quizzical drinking stone with brass cups hanging from a chain that encircles it, a 108-degree fire bath and a cold bath for the brave that, at 57 degrees F, feels positively icy.

With so much to discover and enjoy, I could have spent many more hours in the spa. When I finally dried off, I booked a massage for the next morning, after which I planned to stay in the spa until my fingers and toes wrinkled.


That night I had dinner in the Red Room -- a sumptuous, three-course meal that started with sea scallops in wasabi foam and cucumber dill soup. My entree was a veal filet, accompanied by a local red wine.

In a book about the spa, I read that taking the water in ancient times was a ritualized affair. It included washing in a spring, drinking the water and sleeping, a phase the Romans called incubatio, which I quite like. I think I incubated that night, burrowed under a dreamy white Swiss duvet and with the window cracked open.

It wasn't just raining the next morning; there were thunder and lightning too, the noise muffled by the stone-walled bathhouse room where I had an excellent massage.

In the end, Zumthor's beautifully realized vision of water and stone is what I'll remember most keenly about Vals, and how I sat that morning in the outdoor pool while it rained on my head and thunder cracked.