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A Return To The Chthonic And The Poetics Of Water: Peter Zumthors Thermal Baths And The Tradition Of The Renaissance Nymphaea

Part 1 Dissertation 2001
Julia Baker
Kingston University Kingston-Upon-Thames UK
‘As an image, it can be considered perhaps not so much as a building, but as an ‘earthwork’, as it invokes the archaic and primary actions of digging, carving and mounding up. The 35ºC pool lies just beneath the point of entry and shifts in geometry through a small chasm to a high chamber lit from beneath the water. Where the illumination comes from above, the stone floor beneath the water appears dark and viscous, the ceiling slabs pale and dry. But in the pools where the light shines from below and through the water, the opposite occurs i.e. the stone below the water appears pale, almost dehydrated and the ceiling, dark and watery. The varying lighting conditions not only invert the surface qualities of the stone and water, but in turn it brings into question our orientation. This metamorphosis of materials is also intrinsically tied to a human engagement with the materials and a movement through the spaces. As such, the gneiss floor slabs bear the marks of watery footsteps which take on reflective qualities and depth whilst also serving as a reminder or a trace of what has been. As I mentioned earlier, within the cold pool the splashes of water which alter the stone’s appearance are symptomatic and an acknowledgment of the activities and the movement of the body within the baths. In turn the treatment and finish of the stone is in accordance with its purpose. The seat of stone benches within the baths, for example, have a highly polished, smooth finish thus providing a sympathetic surface on which to sit. This transforms the quality of the stone into a reflective material which glitters owing to the crystalline content of the gneiss. This glistening effect is apparent when in close proximity to each bench. When further away, the reflective surface is reminiscent of still water, responding to the given, external views and qualities of light.. Within Peter Zumthor’s thermal baths at Vals the subjective (in this case personal) phenomenological experience is given validity to emphasise common ground. This does not negate the convivial aspect of the baths which, like their Roman counterparts, allow for a communal, festive experience. The baths are given presence and order through participation in movement with the ever changing, mutable qualities of its surroundings. People move as does the light, the water and the world around it. The architecture remains static, a "sensitive container" which works in harmony with all of the activities it embraces.
Whereas the Villa Giulia acted as a threshold between the unruly chaos of the countryside and the refined order of the city, with recognition to that which is natural, the Thermal Baths provide a retreat from a world with increasingly explicit and overpowering stimuli. The baths allow for silence, a balance with nature and an acceptance of mystery. This is achieved through participation in the play of light, water, earth and sky. The baths are a return to nature and an opportunity for physical and mental/spiritual cleansing. Zumthor writes in Does Beauty have a Form?
‘The beauty of nature touches us as something great that goes beyond us. Man comes from nature and returns to it.......We are in nature, in this immeasurable form that we will never understand and now, in a moment of heightened experience, no longer need to because we sense that we ourselves are part of it.’
The architecture of Peter Zumthor seeks to re-establish that which was meaningful and lost, without being pictorial or semantic. His themes of the site and the world beyond, the role of construction and the repression of the ‘hi-tech’, the intimacy of the materials and textures whilst being truthful to nature’s laws of building are reminiscent of the roots of the Modern Movement. However, this is neither a return to the Modern Movement in its entirety nor a return to the past. The interest lies in the ‘revival of situation’ in architecture and is not a move towards a historicist stance nor a stylistic notion to be seen as the ‘fashion’ of today. The baths fuse that which is local and of the site, with that which is beyond and worldly; creating an inner tension between the veiled and the revealed. This tension is not only contained within the site but radiates outwards bringing the site into oscillation with the world.
Each project of Zumthor pays close attention to the relational circumstances and the properties of the materials in order to act as a mediator between the site, the purpose and use of the building and the world. The result is sensuous, haptic architecture moulded by the way things are used, the spaces imagination produces and its materiality. He leads us to know that:
‘The reality of architecture is the concrete body in which forms, volumes, and spaces come into being. There are no ideas except in things.’

Julia Baker

The recent Thermal Baths at Vals by Peter Zumthor is considered as part of a tradition of water houses. In particular, the social aspects of bathing and investigated as an aspect of the building type. The question is asked, 'What could be considered to be a tradition of building that elicits the fascination water and stone have for the architectural imagination?': and, 'How much of the convivial aspects of this culture survives today?'. The relaionship with one's senses which the phenomena of water and stone emphasise, is seen as part of a broader concern with the topic of building in nature. Julia Baker seeks to uncover the cosmic and political significance of the Nymphaeum of The Villa Guilia. In doing so, she attempts to describe the field for a discussion of the relevance of the bath house today. Her dissertation employs the device of historical perspective, not to propose the assumption of past styles of architecture, nor to presume a nostalgic origin for her discussion. Rather, the potential of cultural 're-birth' is understood as a latent force within architecture; a ground to which we return to discover anew the power of bodily experience when allied with reason and haptic and visual thinking.

Julia's dissertation is subtle and well written. She makes the case for a phenomenology of architecture which is public and social, philosophical, historical and emotional.

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