A Spa for the Spirit
Mario Botta's spa addition to the Tschuggen Grand Hotel in Switzerland offers wellness for both body and mind
Fred A. Bernstein -- Interior Design, 4/1/2007 12:00:00 AM
In the U.S., Mario Botta is known for a single building: the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, completed in 1995. A dozen years later, he's breaking ground on his second U.S. project, the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art in Charlotte, North Carolina. But in Switzerland, where he was born, Botta is seemingly everywhere, with dozens of public buildings to his credit. In many cases, masonry creates powerful forms, which are then topped by dramatic skylights reaching toward the heavens. Botta buildings tend to feel like chapels, even when their functions are mundane.
In designing the Tschuggen Bergoase spa in the Swiss village of Arosa, near St. Moritz, Mario Botta Architetto essentially dispensed with the masonry forms and went straight to the skylights—disguising the mass of the 57,000-square-foot building. After all, the site, a heavily forested Alpine mountainside, was too precious to mar. Botta, who grew up in Ticino, the Italian-speaking southern canton, says he saw the location as evidence of the "ancient fight between man and mountain." And he was happy to let the mountain win. "We started not with thoughts about the building but with reverence for the site," says architect Davide Macullo, a 17-year veteran of Botta's office.
Then, too, the Tschuggen Grand Hotel, attached to the spa, is a banal 1970's building, and Botta envisioned his temple to wellness being as different as possible. So he burrowed into the mountain, allowing oversize skylights to announce the addition's presence. The nine curving forms of glass and zinc—suggesting both mountains and trees—are dramatic by day, when they bring light into the building, and even more stirring by night, as beacons.
Still, there's no shortage of drama in the rest of the $30 million spa—quite possibly Europe's most expensive. From the hotel, the addition is reached via a glass-enclosed suspension bridge with no obvious frame. It feels, Macullo says, like "flying over the landscape." The building then proceeds up the hill on four levels.
On the first is the gym, along with fitness and meditation rooms. The second is home to the beauty and massage center, the third to the sauna, steam rooms, and showers. The fourth floor, not only the highest but also the most dramatic, contains three separate pools: one for adults, one for children, and one for a form of waterborne reflexology called Kneippen, invented by a Bavarian priest named Sebastian Kneipp in the 19th century. Though the pools are necessarily separate, Botta ensured that their surfaces would be at the same level, producing the effect of one continuous body of water.
The water is bordered, on the uphill side, by undulating walls of rough white granite, suggesting that the pool is a lake set against the mountains. The masonry recalls another spa by a renowned Swiss architecture firm, Zumthor Studio's Therme Vals, but with the addition of Botta's seductive curves. The stone was quarried in Italy's Piedmont region and cut into long slabs in Verona; then a company that prepares stone for outdoor sculptures treated the pieces to protect them from water and chlorine. Because the building would be dedicated to wellness, that process intentionally involved natural minerals rather than synthetic chemicals.
On every level, triangular ceiling panels are composed of rows of maple rods. The triangles fit together like sections of a geodesic dome—as they tilt up and down, they permit a variety of ceiling heights and echo the surrounding mountain peaks and valleys.
By limiting himself to two dominant surface materials, maple and granite—each appearing in a variety of finishes—Botta laid the foundation for an atmosphere of tranquillity. Balancing those two opaque materials with two transparent ones, glass and water, conveys a sense of completeness. For design aficionados, the building's carefully edited palette may be as invigorating as the treatments provided inside.