Therme Vals: Body and Building Concept

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1472 words

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There is often a very close relationship between a building and the body that occupies it. I picked the Therme Vals designed by Peter Zumthor to analyze this concept and took into consideration the views of architects Vetruvius and Le Corbusier.

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Therme Vals, located in Vals, Switzerland is built over a hot spring and acts as a place of relaxation and rejuvenation for tourists and the local community. A bath is a very private and warm experience and the building is meticulously designed to enhance this characteristic. Vetruvius’ book, The Ten Books of Architecture, emphasized on the importance of ratios in architecture in respect to the proportions of the human body. Le Corbusier’s Le Modular talks of standardization as a means to mass produce, and takes Vetruvius’ study of human proportions further into design to discuss the relationship between the body and a space. While the Therme Vals inculcates all of these concepts into its design, one of its most successful features is the transitions of scale and proportion from room to room that creates calming and soothing experiences for people. While moving through the space, one goes through a series of indoor and outdoor areas that give them a view of the ecstatic landscape beyond and around. At the same time, there isn’t a lot that people can see from the outside of the building – enhancing its privacy and quiet.

In the ten books of Architecture, proportion is defined as the relation between the members of a structure. As for the façade of the Therme Vals, the proportions of the windows are very carefully thought of. The upper floor of the structure has four massive windows that open up to the sky and have a front view of the entire town. This spot holds the outdoor pool. In this moment, Zumthor, the architect, is aiming at creating a feeling of being small in comparison to the world around us. A view of the endless mountains, the everlasting sky, and the tall stone walls that barely enclose the space make the person inside think about how infinitesimal their presence on Earth is. On the other hand, the bottom most floor of the Therme Vals has the purpose of an enclosed, low heighted space that keeps you cozy and close to the stone walls of the building. Each small, long corridor opens up to a hot sauna, relaxation room, and changing room. This space in turn makes the interaction between an individual and its space powerful. There are sixteen small windows that give you a “sneak-peak” into the nature outside. While the massive outdoor space on top makes you think of the world beyond you, the compact space downstairs begins to act as an instigator of self-introspection.

Similar to Vetruvius, Le Corbusier’s book Le Modular also gets into the proportions of the human body. He takes the measurements and proportions of the human body studied by Vetruvius to a further extent and uses the body as the central focus of design. Everything must be designed according to the scale of the human body, and altered to create various experiences, says Le Corbusier. When walking or driving towards Therme Vals, there is a sense of grand scale. The building in most parts has double heighted spaces, is a total of 178 feet wide, and is composed of two parallel rectangles connected to each other on one side. All of these proportions, according to me, were created with the idea to make the human being feel small, in a space overwhelmed and inspired by nature. Even though these proportions might go well with the ideal human body taken into consideration while designing, I believe that it is not fair to have the ideal body to be that of a six feet man. If the world’s average height of people were to be considered, it is only 5 feet 8 inches. Hence, even though the Therme Vals caters to a space for people of all heights, Le Corbusier’s idea of designing according to the six feet man is questionable in terms of gender and race. Vetruvius mentions that the best architecture comes from symmetry. However, Zumthor went against this idea in his façade. He placed windows and openings not symmetrical to one another, but rather according to their function on the building. Small windows for private areas and large ones for more public spaces. I believe that this is a more successful way of dealing with design. While symmetry has always been pleasant to the human eye, we must take into consideration that we ourselves are not symmetrical, and if we were, we would look a little absurd.

In the same way, tweaking the façade of Therme Vals to remain true to its solid, rectangular floor plan but simultaneously inculcating the trueness of form following function worked successfully for the hot spring. Within the structure as well, there is not much symmetry on the floor plan as a whole, but the layout stays true to rectangular rooms parallel and perpendicular from one another. Despite the lack of repetition, this floor plan creates a sense of rhythm, and works according to the needs of an individual walking through the space. From the spring water, to the changing rooms to the toilets and then the stairs, Therme Vals is extremely functional. While asymmetrical, the plan of the bath can be laid on a grid.Le Corbusier in his book Le Modulor emphasis on his draw towards standardization. The ability to create a grid with endless possibilities, and that is exactly what Therme Vals is. Despite its lack of compliance to Vetruvius’ symmetry, Zumthor designed the bath to be a cuboid, with several varied sizes of rectangular rooms within it. There are no curved paths through the entire structure, and this makes up for the lack of symmetry while allowing the space to follow its functional transitions. This idea of standardization furthered into common steps for building a house or space and quite exactly, these features are found in Therme Vals. The first guideline - free roof space to make a terrace. The hot spring has a green roof throughout, allowing it to keep up with its connection to its site at ground level. Next, Corbusier speaks of the freed floor plan that encourages free movement within a space, the free façade that allows light to flood the space and horizontal windows that are all made possible by using columns as support. Therme Vals is horizontally predominant, and has all of the features mentioned by Le Corbusier.

Zumthor, following through all of these guidelines for steps towards mass production by Le Corbusier, decided to break one rule, and I see this as a bold, and successful statement by the building. Le Corbusier says that a house must be lifted from the ground in order to increase garden space. In contradiction, Therme Vals has about half of its structure embedded into the ground, caressing its landscape. Keeping in mind the purpose of the structure as to leave a sense of relaxation, safety, and warmth for an individual, the building acts as a small niche in the massive Earth surface and keeps people inside still in contact with nature, from the inside of a man-made structure. Being too open on a tall building would create a sense of fright in people, not allowing them to enjoy an open space without the fear of height and the strong breezes that come with it. This design also ensures people’s privacy while keeping them in the open – two ideas that seem difficult to achieve simultaneously. This place answers the question of how to successfully create a private space in a public area.

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I believe that Peter Zumthor has inculcated his own personal style into Therme Vals, while still complying to rules and ideas that have been discovered and proven successful over several years of testing and practice. Hence, the building understands and creates beauty with the use of these guidelines, but does not forget its function, it’s site and the people who come in to use this space. It breaks certain rules such as symmetry, raised building, and the golden ratio proportions to create its own sense of rhythm that works well with the slopes of its landscape and the functions that run through each of its spaces. It plays with proportions and scale in a way that the landscape outside plays with our sense of scale and proportion, keeping us very near to the feeling nature. Le Corbusier and Vetruvius came up with guidelines several years ago, and the concept of design is to always develop from where the previous generation left us at. Therme Vals is a development in this sense, where Peter Zumthor understood these concepts and further created his own style to illustrate the relationship between the human body and the spaces we occupy.

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Therme Vals: Body and Building Concept. (2020, May 19). GradesFixer. Retrieved October 1, 2023, from
“Therme Vals: Body and Building Concept.” GradesFixer, 19 May 2020,
Therme Vals: Body and Building Concept. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 1 Oct. 2023].
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