Swiss modern

28 January 2013
Ben Pentreath

Where’s the best place for a traditional architect to go on holiday? Nope, it’s not Italy, I’ve realised. And not even a stay in a nice old English town. If you want a truly relaxing time, where your mind can empty and you can find time to think about other things: it’s a good place to go somewhere where you’re not constantly thinking ‘help, they did it better 300 years ago’.

This week, I went for my friend William’s birthday to Switzerland. It’s become a bit of an annual pilgrimage for Will, who is, I suspect, the architect to watch if you want your buildings to be timeless and contemporary all at the same time (you can check out his website here). To be fair, Will and I live in each others pockets. Our office is in his flat, and his flat is above my office. We’ve even collaborated on a couple of projects, here in London and at our job in Chichester. All very confusing, not least for his mum and dad and my mum and dad, who like many of our neighbours on Lambs Conduit Street, seem rather convinced that we’re going out with each other. No, just good friends. Hope for all you William admirers and Ben admirers yet.

Anyway, this was my first trip to the Therme Vals where Will has made his birthday party for the last few years. It’s very famous in architectural circles, of course, but for some of the readers of this blog it may not be.  Designed by the Swiss architect Peter Zumthor, and built about 15 years ago, it has become one of those places where other architects make pilgrimages. What I love about the Thermal baths is that it’s also much loved by the old Swiss ladies who live in the little village. It really is perfect.

Can you think of a more beautiful, serene space to spend a day? No, probably not, I can attest – having spent all day today in the baths. The stripy walls are pieces of the local soft grey slate-like stone, built up in huge strata. The architectural relationships of wall to room and from space to space are sublime. They really are.

Of course, modernism belongs in Switzerland. Look at the font helvetica, which reminds me I must book to rent that film one of these days:

It’s hard to think of a building such as Therme Vals being so beautifully conceived and executed and maintained over here. I recently bought a fantastic book, the Country Life book of ‘Architecture in Britain Today’, written in 1969;  it’s rather heartbreaking to see how beautiful so many of these early photographs are, places that have now become concrete-stained, failed stumps. Why? It makes me sad, yet fascinated; the fractious English relationship with Modernism; the source of so much architectural angst, and social anguish. It all seems that it could be another way. A question for another day.

We were partly in Switzerland to ski. I’m not a great skier, but I’m a great lover of skiing (okay, and let’s admit, an even greater lover of a certain type of hot skier; I am sure you know what I mean). The mountains at Laax were breathtaking. There was a nice saying I heard on the radio once, on that programme that I miss that used to come out on a Sunday morning years ago, On your Farm, where the interviewer would breakfast with a farming family somewhere around the country. That particular week, they were in Lincolnshire. ‘Any fool can appreciate a mountain’, the farmer said over his eggs and bacon; ‘you’ve got to be a special type of person to understand the flat lands’.

Well yes… to a point. I’m afraid I don’t mind calling myself a fool for liking this:

Or this:

Or these…

Yes, I’ve got to admit: I think it’s good to see the mountains every now and again.

One afternoon, on the way back, we went to see if we could discover a building that we’d spied across the valley in Ilanz. It turned out to be a beautiful convent, and I’d like to know more about the architect, Moser, if anyone can tell me.  We called in. The sisters couldn’t have been more gently welcoming.  They clearly loved their building as much as the old ladies who populate Therme Vals.

The interior of the church.

(cool umbrella stand, anyone?)

I don’t know why I like a building like this so much. You know, I think it’s got to do with the backdrop. There’s something about those mountains, that snow, that crisp, clean white light that works, in a way that a cheaply built version of the same thing on the Mile End Road would today look like a dump.  Hmm.

Returning to Vals, I can’t tell you how much I’ve enjoyed the tiny details of our strange hotel. For a minute you wonder if you’ve walked in to the pages of Wallpaper magazine. Built in the 60s, it’s had a partial and light touch renovation by Zumthor, but it’s a fine line between old and new (or should that be older and newer?).

If you want to come and stay at Vals, it helps if you’re either a young architecturally-minded couple in your early twenties, quietly handsome if you’re the boy, and prettily yet simply dressed if you’re the girl; and both quietly  serious and intelligent. Such types were arriving three pairs an hour all weekend.  CUTE. It was so great to see, but modesty , you will understand, prevented me from taking snaps.

If you’re not that type, then it helps if you’re even more serious. If you’re a guy, you need to be a rather dashing silver fox, or alternatively you must sport the mad professor look.  In either case, your wife will have a rather severe, intelligent, Zurich haircut; quite often dyed orange, and preferably quite asymmetrical.

You see?

It very much helps if you like reading your novel in the lobby, looking extremely intent, and intelligent:

And if you like to sit side by side, not saying too much at all, but still looking pretty intelligent – even better:

Yes, you guessed it, Ben P didn’t really fit in with Lobby Style.  I’ve got to confess that William does. But it’s still one of the most fun holidays I’ve had in years.

On the way home, I made a bit of a mistake with timing. Being a nervous traveller, I’m a great believer in turning up to the airport rather early, like, several hours early. Will and Danny take a more haphazard point of view. So I think they couldn’t quite understand why I was taking so long to pack up my laptop and get in the car. Because, where I was beginning to pen this blog, it was set to UK time. Oh dear. When we finally got in the car I realised we were setting off an hour later than I would possibly  have contemplated (and about 10 minutes later, and five minutes earlier, that Will and Danny respectively would have been happy with).

Which would have been fine if the road from Laax to Zurich hadn’t been nose-to-tail traffic all the way. We blamed Davos. No one wants you, international masters of the universe, especially when you’re clogging the road to the airport.

Well, we made it… with two minutes to spare. Literally. We arrived at the check-in 2 minutes before it closed, and not without breaking a few rules along the way, like dumping the rental car in the Swiss Air First Class passenger drop off area. Avis might be a bit confused tomorrow morning, if we haven’t already created a major airport incident. So it’s doubly nice to be home, at the same time as it’s good to be reminded that it’s all very well being cautious, but even more exciting to make mistakes.

Not a lesson you’d usually learn in Switzerland.

16 comments on this post

None of them look like they know how to yodel. How times change…

Switzerland and the Swiss Alps always make me weak in the knees. And I really fancy the Swiss sense of design – love these photos!


Looks fantastic. I’m ashamed to say I’ve never heard of the place. I plan to watch the film and dream about booking a few days there. Very Thomas Mann and I suppose the perfect place to recover from TB.

I am completely entranced by that convent. In Ireland (where I’m from) convents are buildings that are being converted into luxury apartments, not wonderful architecture like that. When was it built?

Stephen Archibldsays:

I looked at the pictures first and thought Wallpaper. Amused to read it felt that way too.

Ben, great post… just like a contemplative issue of Wallpaper! I’ve often wondered why modernist architecture works far less well in the UK than in either tropical or snowy / mountainous countries, and have come to the conclusion that it’s all about climate and light. In the UK, comparatively constant rain continuously dumps pollution out of the air, turning concrete grey whilst eventually producing rusty streaks from the inner decaying rebar. Then there’s the light: just the other day I was sitting in a meeting in a nasty 70s block, looking out over a car park to another one… it’s usually a miserable scene, but on this day the covering of snow and the resulting clean monochrome light made me think I’d suddenly woken up in Scandiland. Maybe not the whole truth in either case, but I think it’s a start…

Janet Wheatcroftsays:

What is it about modernism and umbrella stands? Trawling through e-bay I could have taken my pick from umbrella stands wiener werkstatte to post modern. Many, many from the sixties. Yet I don’t remember a great deal of umbrella carrying in the sixties. Mostly one was expected to run with carefree abandon into the rain, laughing kookily. Maybe in Germany……..

I was thinking on a rain-lashed Monday night that I hadn’t called in on cheery Pentreath blog-land for some time and thank you, for making me laugh and smile, particularly at the architectural stereo types on display. We once went to Venice when the Biennale was launching and ‘OH the people watching’, irish-husband kept on having to have another. Anyway Alps here we come right?

Helvetic is a great film – it was a huge hit in New York when it was released. Massimo Vignelli (one of the stars) is a dear man. I was the editor on one of his books and became friends with him. He kindly treated me to lunch at Jean Jacques in NY; such a gracious gentleman. The stories he told about his legendary life; the glamorous old royals and celebs he’s mixed with… My God, they were so good they made my ears bleed! Then 3pm came around and he said he had to go. (Although I was too sloshed to stand by this time.) I said “Where?” He said: “I’m actually being presented with the key to NY city”…

Switzerland looks a bit…cold for me. Aesthetically and climatically. Sorry. Can’t wait to see what you think of Harbour Is though.

I remember a great feature in one of the early editions of Wallpaper magazine, in the late nineties I think, about a Swiss hotel, with painted/drawn illustrations, rather than photographs, which had exactly the same modern/retro intellectual/cute vibe as you are describing. Uncanny. If only I could remember the name of the illustrator … Ruben Toledo perhaps?


I spent my 30th birthday here and have been returning most years to help me get through miserable February!
It is the best tonic! Next time forget the car, take the train its a beautiful journey from Zurich and a post bus connects doing the final stretch from Ilanz. Hope you had a few cocktails at the piano bar and a good massage?

Wow, I want to visit. Having never been to Switzerland I really need to make it my next holiday. I will note Therme Vals. Thanks for this amazing post..

I cannot think of a ‘more beautiful and serene place’ and have long wanted to visit. Thank you for the stunning reminder!

Andrew Harrissays:

Pimpmybricks, to be fair there is what I take to be a picture of that, albeit in profile so you can’t fully appreciate the asymmetry. Nice piece. Not the hairpiece, the article.

I have just (today) missed my own holiday by very cleverly losing my passport. So it’s sort of bittersweet to read about yours. But actually I loved to hear about it and the only thing I would have liked extra would have been a picture of the funky, ascetic, wonky orange hairdo. It was a little tantalising to tell but not show.

Wow, a yearly birthday at Vals Therme. That’s luxury. I’ve been there once (with a bunch of architects of course) and it was amazing. Speeding down that mountain road that leads to Vals? Scary!

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