Swiss modern

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.

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