Zumthor and Mayne Trade Places: Good or Bad For LA and the Alps?

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Rendering of Zumthor’s updated design for LACMA (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

This week Angelenos got a look at the latest iteration of Swiss architect Peter Zumthor’s design for LACMA.

Meanwhile, in a tiny village in Switzerland called Vals, residents are taking in renderings of a new hotel designed by leading LA architect Thom Mayne. He is proposing a towering addition to Therme Vals, a hotel and spa complex whose spa building was designed by Peter Zumthor and is widely considered a masterpiece of minimalist hedonism. 

So what happens when these Pritzker-winning architects trade places? Both projects seem to raise questions about suitability to site in a time in which leading architects function as global brands.

Rendering of Morphosis-designed hotel in Vals

Luxury Reflected

Therme Vals was two things when it opened: a model of regional Modernism set back on a hillside in Vals, a tiny and hard-to-access mountain village with picture postcard charm.

The experience of the baths was interior: a low-lit labyrinth of pools walled in paper-thin slabs of locally quarried quarzite, glistening from the sunlight, delivered by small, high windows, bouncing off the waters.

Therme Vals, designed by Peter Zumthor (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

It was also public. When I visited the spa shortly after it opened in 1996, you joined the locals in paying a few francs for the right to bask in this utterly transcendent space, owned by the Vals community.

It was exciting to be in a place that believed a luxury experience was a common good. Zumthor had dictated that there be no screaming signs or even clocks on the walls; their absence coupled with the mandatory silence added to the spa’s rare sense of calm (that is increasingly an expensive commodity).

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Interior of Therme Vals, designed by Peter Zumthor

Now Therme Vals is privately owned — apparently the people of Vals voted to sell their baths and hotel in 2012 to a local entrepreneur named Remo Stoffel who teamed up with Pius Truffer, also a resident of Vals and a lover of fine architecture.

Vals hotel
Existing hotel building at Therme Vals

Together they have rebranded the spa and its accompanying hotel complex as the 7132 resort (the number is the local zip code).

They selected the always-bracing Mayne from a shortlist of eight top-tier architects to design a new hotel, and picked Japan’s Tadao Ando (also a Pritzker-prize winner) to create a “Valser Path” — all part of what the company describes as “a thriving, carefully guided model for tourism in the valley.”

Rendering of approach to Morphosis-designed hotel at Therme Spa; courtesy: Morphosis (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Mayne’s solution comprises a podium linking the building with neighboring structures; a cantilevered structure containing a restaurant, café, spa, and bar open to locals and tourists; and, springing from that base, the most conspicuous while most exclusive component: a thrusting, sky-high tower with sky bar, restaurant, and 107 guest rooms, one per floor.

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Photo of model of Morphosis-designed hotel at Therme Spa in Vals, Switzerland; courtesy: Morphosis

This proposed 1,250 feet tower (the height of the Empire State Building) is described in a press release as “transparent and slim” and “a minimalist act” borne of an architecture firm where “specificity is really the central driver” that “re-iterates the site and offers to the viewer a mirrored, refracted perspective of the landscape.”

Rendering of guest room; courtesy, Morphosis (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

But on looking at the misty renderings of the glassy tower punching through the mountainscape, of course people are asking: just how minimalist, transparent or slim will this very tall tower be in reality? Will it mirror, or compete with, the alpine setting?

And while being a guest in these rooms with panoramic views will doubtless be fabulous, what will its impact — physically and socially — be on a small community looking up, that hitherto wore its “luxury” lightly?

LACMA collage
Top: an former rendering of a Zumthor-designed LACMA; Bottom: LACMA today includes buildings designed by William Pereira and Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer Associates (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

The Blob Gets Sharp Corners

Meanwhile, back in LA, since Peter Zumthor first unveiled his blackish “blob” he and LACMA director Michael Govan have strenuously made the case that the avowedly regionalist architect has captured the spirit of Los Angeles in his design.

Its organic, flowing, low-slung structure in the landscape was initially touted by the LA Times‘ Christopher Hawthorne as “a reflection of “contemporary Los Angeles, a city that Zumthor. . . has carefully studied. Like L.A., the proposed building is open and tolerant. It has no single main entrance or front staircase.”

But once in design development Zumthor has had to rein in the concept and revealed that perhaps he had tried too hard to make the museum, writes Hawthorne, “a loose-limbed, site-specific tribute to the tar pits and the car culture of Wilshire Boulevard.” Now it is “incorporating the grounded, harder-edged forms of the European buildings that made his reputation.”

The multiple, nonhierarchical entrances have gone, along with the entirely biomorphic form, which is now more angular than globular, but still wandering weirdly across Wilshire.

Latest plan for LACMA by Peter Zumthor (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

It’s unclear if this is an improvement since right from the start, the monolithic scheme felt off-base, not a natural fit for its location — a complex of mostly rectilinear, urban-scale buildings around open plazas with a direct relationship to Wilshire. Has the architect so comfortable in the Swiss Alps come a bit unglued in La-La Land?

The Franchising of Architecture

Last year the architecture critic Witold Rybczynski wrote an intriguing piece about the problems raised by the “franchising of architecture.”

“Once upon a time,” he wrote, “the great architecture of the world was strictly local. Travelers seeking the wonders of London, Paris and Florence saw buildings designed by Londoners, Parisians and Florentines. . . Though architects were not necessarily tied to one city — Raphael was born in Urbino but built in Florence and Rome — most stayed close to home. . . Today, European architects regularly work in the United States, Americans work in Europe and everybody works in Asia. . .

“Architecture, however, is a social art, rather than a personal one, a reflection of a society and its values rather than a medium of individual expression. So it’s a problem when the prevailing trend is one of franchises, particularly those of the globe-trotters. . .

“It’s exciting to bring high-powered architects in from outside. It flatters a city’s sense of self-importance, and fosters the perception of a place as a creative hotbed. But in the long run it’s wiser to nurture local talent; instead of starchitects, locatects.” 

The reason, he argued, is that “imported talents just passing through town — however talented they may be — don’t intimately know the place they are working in. Sometimes it’s as simple as not understanding the climate.” 

Virginia State Capitol
The “starchitecture” of its day: Virginia State Capitol (1788) was designed by Thomas Jefferson, while in Paris, with French neoclassical architect Charles-Louis Clerisseau (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

The point might be a bit parochial — LA wouldn’t have its Modernist legacy if it had stuck with only “locatects,” and that’s only one example of the fruits of global exchange. Besides, the neoclassical splendors of Europe Rybczynski extols were the “starchitecture” brand of their day, overlaid by aristocrats, popes, politicians and speculators on towns and cities that had been built in vernacular “locatectural” styles.

However, his argument is provocative. On looking at the schemes for LACMA and Vals at this stage (which of course are still in process and could change), one has to ask whose “self-importance” is being flattered here: starstruck clients or the societies of which they are part?

And, I couldn’t help thinking: Mayne’s tower would shine among the towers of Bunker Hill or above the Metro at the Wilshire and Fairfax intersection; and Zumthor’s angular blob could work very well wrapped around the hills of Vals.

The hills of Vals as viewed from the restaurant of the hotel designed by Morphosis; rendering courtesy: Morphosis (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)