Raul Barreneche -- Interior Design, 10/1/2008 12:00:00 AM
Spa-seekers have been drawn to Spain's Valle de Tena since the days of the Roman Emperor Tiberius. Cradled by the rocky, snow-capped peaks of the Pyrenees mountains—some towering nearly 10,000 feet above sea level—the pristine valley has fostered a posh little resort town, Panticosa, with hotels, restaurants, and curative spas clustered around a glacial lake. After its heyday at the turn of the last century, the once-chic retreat fell out of favor and its early 19th-century buildings into severe disrepair.
Spanish developer Nozar Group bought the aging properties in 2000 and christened the complex as the Panticosa Resort. The company brought aboard not one, but two Pritzker Architecture Prize winners to renovate an existing hotel and casino, plus add new lodgings. Spaniard Rafael Moneo renovated the Grand Hotel and built a pair of new inns. Portugal's Alvaro Siza designed a hotel/training center for serious as well as professional athletes along with a residential hotel. And Nozar hired Moneo's daughter, Belén, and Jeffrey Brock, partners at Moneo Brock Studio, to design the crown jewel: a 91,500-square-foot thermal bath and spa facility, fittingly called Termas de Tiberio.
The husband-and-wife architects nestled the spa building amid a traditional 19th-century church (the renovation of which was a collaboration between Moneo père and Siza), the hotels, and a steep, pine-covered mountainside. Its volumes wrapped in glass block—curving, ribbonlike setbacks stacked atop a rectilinear base—walk the line between the historic resort's hard-edged formality and the brute ruggedness of the mountain landscape. "The architecture we found was very urban, but we were looking to do something much more organic," says Moneo. "The building weaves in and out of the mountain."
Indeed, the lowest level of the five-floor building, given over to suites of treatment rooms grouped around an airy, 25-foot-high lobby, is completely subterranean. Upper levels, containing changing rooms, lounges, a gym, café, and a variety of indoor and outdoor pools and baths, are increasingly disengaged from the steep terrain. But bathers are always aware of the topography outside, whether glimpsed through large picture windows or literally grasped—as in the bath chamber where Moneo and Brock exposed a craggy rock outcropping. "Our goal was to find ways for a huge building to retain intimacy and still relate to the scale of the mountain landscape," Brock says.
The designers wrapped the building's exterior in a pale, luminous skin of customized glass blocks—"white glass that's completely at home in the snow," notes Moneo—and large windows. The configuration of glass blocks, which were fabricated in Italy, renders horizontal ribs that emphasize the exterior's linearity and a subtle flare at the bottom that helps shed water, like lapped shingles. Inside, the block walls are paneled with richly veined alabaster that glows as daylight flows through the translucent materials. Warm air blown through a cavity between the alabaster and the glass block prevents condensation despite the high humidity.
Inside, the architects distinguished a broad variety of spaces from one another by giving each distinct qualities, helping clients navigate the vast spa. There are hydrotherapy and aromatic pools, a cold-plunge pool, a steam bath, a Finnish sauna, a hammam, a caldarium, and even a snow-filled igloo that re-creates the experience of a traditional Scandinavian post-sauna romp in the snow. Moneo and Brock drew on their own spa experiences in the saunas of Scandinavia where they once lived, traditional hammams in Istanbul, and hot springs in the mountains outside Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Peter Zumthor's austere thermal baths in Vals, Switzerland, loomed especially large in the architects' memory, but Moneo and Brock consciously opted for more material richness. They finished the lobby and common hallways in bright green, gold, and blue stucco and gave the bathing areas a rich, sensual material palette: bluestone with lapis lines the plunge pools, white marble tiles and iridescent mosaic tiles curve around the dome of the steamy hammam, softly backlit alabaster frames the walls around the waterfall pool. Handled with a keen contemporary touch, these elements continue the long tradition of what Moneo calls the language of bathing.