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Peter Zumthor's Therme Vals baths in print

From Vogue to the LA Times, the representation of Peter Zumthor’s Therme Vals baths in print is an exercise in architectural canonisation

Dutch architect Carel Weeber once said that buildings don’t become architecture until they’re published. Peter Zumthor’s Therme Vals baths in Switzerland is, by all accounts, a marvellous building, but its widespread mediation in the press validates its position in the architectural canon.

The July 1997 issue of Vogue contains a 10-page swimwear feature called ‘Body Building’. Each page consists of a single photograph showing a model inside Therme Vals. Sometimes she dominates the shot so you can’t see beyond her curves. Sometimes she’s composed against the building’s hard lines. ‘Gone are the days when sporty meant dowdy,’ comments the sparse text. ‘Ralph Lauren’s sleek racer-back swimsuit mixes functionalism with femininity.’ Our model wears Manolo Blahnik high heels.

Susan Spano’s piece for the LA Times’ travel section of 14 September 2008 takes the more human angle. Her photographs of Therme Vals are painfully amateurish. ‘I tried to photograph the spa,’ she admits, ‘but it eluded me.’ However, her description evokes in her readers a false memory of the place. ‘What I’ll remember most keenly [is] how I sat that morning in the outdoor pool while it rained on my head and thunder cracked,’ she writes.

In the August 1997 edition of Italian architecture magazine Casabella, Zumthor discusses phenomenologies, like ‘the body’s contact with water at different temperatures’ and ‘touching stone’. But Casabella’s photographs of Therme Vals are cold, hard and devoid of people. In one shot, wet footprints are set against the baths’ abstract geometry of light and gneiss stone, but this is the closest we come to human contact. This contrasts with Spano’s description of ‘kissing couples, gossiping women and frolicking kids’.

Raymund Ryan, in the Architectural Review of August 1997 is more architectonic in his descriptions. Zumthor’s building is ‘a buried, almost labyrinthine world of solid and void’. The baths are connected to the existing hotel by an underground passage. Spano excuses this pragmatically – ‘so hotel guests can wear robes to the spa’ – whereas Ryan opines that the ‘subterranean nature of this connection is crucial as it dislocates the individual from the world outside.’

As Zumthor writes in Casabella, he designed a spa that deliberately challenges the usual tourist experience of the ‘latest aquagadgetry, water jetz (sic), nozzles, or chutes’, focusing instead on ‘the silent, primary experience of bathing’. Domus’ November 1997 edition criticises this approach, dubbing it ‘Saintly Architecture’. ‘The facts of utilization and marketing… show clearly that this architectural concept too can be devastated by consumerism.’

Yet media coverage – including the article you are reading now – sanctifies Zumthor’s building, transforming it into a canonised commodity. Architectural photographs have Miesian characteristics, more symmetrical about the horizontal than the vertical axis.

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