Friday, July 17, 2009

Bathing with the Best

Excerpt from my travel sketchbook while in Peter Zumthor's Thermal Baths:

"...in the 42°C water room I was thinking about the morality of space and wanted to write my thoughts down before they flutter away like little angry birds. It all started when I was thinking about stealing a towel in the main area [I had not brought one and could not figure out where to obtain one for the life of me]. As my imaginary devil and angel were locked in a heated debate, I opted to await their decision in the "fire" room after a briefer than expected plunge into the opposite extreme, the 14°C pool. As you enter the 42° room [not big enough for more than 8 people sitting comfortably] the colors change from from the blue, green, and gray hues to a deep burgundy wall and flat concrete made to look pinkish by reflected light. I very slowly made my way into the water, further confusing my body that was only a minute ago actively attempting to prevent hypothermia. The floor of the small space was rougher than normal. Aggregate in concrete blown away to expose reddish and muddy brown rocks. The height of the water was just above the headrest, less than an inch deep.

As I stared up at the ceiling I was contemplating if the space itself was what was giving me this more dwelled on than normal moral dilemma? In short, was it possible for a space to have a moral character?
I got thinking back to many of the churches that stuck out in my memory... Fay Jones' Thorncrown, Mont St. Michel, St. Peters... What if it was not the overbearing thought of eternal damnation or the presence of mysterious symbols that filled my body with moral fiber, but the actual space itself? Are prisons in their design un-moral, and therefore condone the violence that goes on in between their walls? Would it be better to have a beautiful space for a prison or would that go against the idea of punishment deemed necessary? Is isolation enough of a punishment in its own accord that it doesn't need to couple itself with horribly designed spaces?

Was it the light above, or the temperature of the water, or sounds echoing off of the walls that made me smile at passerbys more than normal? For me, the baths have a sacred quality to them, rivaling many of the churches I have seen in my limited years.
After this long game of moral badminton, I still ended up stealing the towel. Not sure what that means about me yet though, some questions are better left alone maybe..."

Suffice to say the "Baths" were a mind altering experience, and lead to the thinking of deep thoughts in shallow water.

The small village of Vals held its own uniqueness though. Vals is located in a narrow valley in the Alps, with close shorn green hills rising up on either side dotted with a very particular farm building. The building itself is used for storage of the grass that is cut and used for fodder for livestock. One taken by itself is not a spectacular sight, but when multiplied hundreds of times over, the formal language becomes extremely powerful by repetition alone. They are all nearly identical formally but the closer you look, each is made personal in some form or another by its owner and caretaker. They rise from a stone plinth [concrete in the modern ones], possibly to get them above the snow line in winter, and the stone continues upwards to create four stout corners used to hold up the roof. All four sides are then infilled with usually vertical wooden siding, though the side on the uphill direction has the door used to shuffle the hay inside for storage. Seeing all of these farm structures done with craft and strong regional ties got me more than a little nostalgic for the tobacco barns I grew up with in my home state of North Carolina.

I hope to find out more about the structures that are such an integral part of alpine village culture in the future though so far I'm having trouble finding English speaking citizens in the small towns. Back in Chur now and will be heading to the small remote village of Vrin tomorrow for 3 days so its likely I'll be MIA for a bit.


Thoughts on Traveling #21 : Zumthor... I know its probably not your fault and everything... but this has got to be the worst entrance to a place of relaxation I've ever seen. I felt like I was about to walk into a strip club in a bad part of town.

1 comment:

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