The rhythm of silence.
The third day is full of silence. Driving back and leaving the mountains behind us. During the night the snow did it’s magic, metamorphosing landscape and light, but soon we are caught by another reality, again the German highways, becoming part of it. High speed and traffic jams. Very fast and very slow. Disproportion. Silence between us and a lot of noise outside.
I have difficulties not to regard the Thermen as a Hortus Conclusus, a fountain of life in the mountains. In this case not being a “wishing well”, neither a pool of eternal youth, but a real hot water source shaped, sculptured out of the Valser quartzite. A small paradise on earth where people are close, very close and intimate, together in a silent and sensitive understanding. Adam and Eve, not being aware of their luck and fortune (hating the word happiness).
Water was always granted healing and even religious powers. As all primary elements, – water, wind, fire and earth -, water was implemented in so many rituals, mostly connected with (re-)birth and spiritual cleansing. The undressing is always part of these rituals, but also in private situations it occurs to be the moment of a mental change, the change between extravert and introvert, extramuros and intramuros, being unprotected or protected by massive walls of the city, the house, the marble or cast iron bathtub, … The moment we undress we bring ourselves into a fragile position, our skin vulnerable and our naked body visible by the other. We prefer subdued light and soft acoustics for these intimate moments, losing our sense of sight and hearing in favor of touch (and smell and taste). Or we are not aware of our nudity and forgot our original sin. Recalling the Garden of Eden again.
Let’s not talk about tourist naturism, social nudism, expressions of physical culture as rhythmic gymnastics, the National Socialism approach to the human body emphasizing the sameness (manly strength and womanly grace) over difference, and our contemporary culture of fit- and wellness, the imposed need to look attractive and eternal young, … All these movements and phenomena refer one way or another to an ideal, paradise-like, situation, but being at first sight spontaneous and optional they do appear to be very ambiguous, shifting to the compulsive and even to the strongly manipulative.
Let’s not talk about religious rituals and the baptizing, neither about (conceptual) artists who introduce the undressing (and clothing again) as a ritual performance on itself, just indicating the act or the moment of (mental) transformation. In this writing I would like to regard bathing as a non-coded, a non dogmatic act, just being an intimate, sensuous handling.
Let’s not regard the ambiguous usage of the public bathhouses that became popular (mega) meeting places in the Roman Imperial era, and especially in late medieval and early renaissance times, when the bathing was combined with eating and drinking, music, … and amorous dalliance. As the Roman heating technology got lost in the latter, the bathing in wooden tubs was compensated by all kind of events and festivities and not in the least by the nice company of Amor and Cupid, as we can see in so many manuscripts (“Bathing couple” in “Romance of Alexander”, The Bodley manuscript, Oxford University (c.1338-44) and “Ladies preparing the bath of poet Jakob Von Warte” in the Codex Manesse (c.1300-15)), woodcuts by Durer and Sebald Beham (“The fountain of life and bathhouse” (1530-31) (2)) and paintings by Lucas Cranach the Elder (“The fountain of Life” (1546) (7)) and Hans Bock the Elder (“The baths at Louèche” (1597)).
Let’s not regard our contemporary pools of pleasure ; tropical swimming resorts build as huge crystal palaces with artificial waterfalls and exotic palm trees suggesting … of course, paradise.
Let’s talk about the moment that we enter the Thermen in Vals ; from the hotel lobby we take the stairs leading down to a lower level, situated in the foot of the mountain. We enter the underground. Succeeded by a narrow black painted tunnel, with a slight downwards slope, we arrive in a corridor where brass bends spit water, leaving rusty stains against a concrete wall. This outer wall being the most dug into the side of the mountain.
Stairs, tunnel and corridor indicate the passage into another world which is a bit hidden, a bit secret. While walking along them, curiosity grows. Stairs, tunnel and corridor indicate (linear) movement, before calming down and staying, dwelling around.
The faucets in the corridor make clear the Thermen are build on top of the hot water source. It looks like if the water wants to infiltrate through the concrete walls, through its craquelures. But moreover the presence of the spitting water marks a change in time and awareness. The source is inexhaustible, the sound of the water continuous. The minerals in the water stain the natural grey concrete, the rusty traces under the faucets suggesting geological layers and processes that took thousand of centuries.
Opposite these fountains we enter the changing rooms. Feels like entering somebody’s mind.
Let’s talk about this specific moment of preparation, the moment that bit by bit sight and sound are overruled by our sense of touch, the moment that we feel comfortable in a warm and humid dusk, that we feel safe in the eyes of “the other”, safe and teased by the looks of each other.
Zumthor did it in a great way ; walls and lockers around in bright red Mahogany, a glossy varnish, 2 private cabins accessible from each common dressing room, black silk like curtains, black rubber floor rugs, a flat couch in buttoned black leather. The mainly reddish atmosphere with some shades of black, create a peaceful and suggestive, even a bit kinky, ambience. I like to walk barefoot on the rubber. Waiting (for her), I already have a glimpse from behind the curtains into the baths.
Before bathing, lets imagine the early Roman Thermae, more specific those in the so called Republican Style, as we still know them from Pompeii. Lets recall the Arab and Ottoman bathhouses which are rooted in that Roman tradition.
Compared with the Imperial baths in Rome, the earlier public baths were of moderate size, more human in scale, asymmetric and organically part of the city. Bathing was a complete act, in which the procedures of bathing, the architectural atmospheres and engineering techniques were fully integrated. The Caldarium (warm bath) and the Hypocaust (ancient Roman system of floor heating) (4) of the Stabian and Forum Baths (3) in Pompeii illustrate this the best.
The Caldarium is a rectangular shaped space with at one end a semicircular niche. The barrel vaulted ceiling ends in an apse on top of the niche. In this apsidal niche (Schola) stood a large shallow, circular marble vessel (Labrum) supplied with lukewarm water for the purpose of refreshment. Along the other side of the space steps lined with white marble mark out a bath basin (Alveus). The basin is filled with hot water provided by the nearby furnaces. In the apse a small round window (Oculus) lights the space dimly, putting the focus on the Labrum. The zenithal light of the Mediterranean sun functions as a searchlight groping around the Labrum and reflecting the water.
The heating system (4) for water and rooms was quit ingenious. Hot air and smoke of the furnaces were drawn into a hollow space under a floor of tiles which were supported at their four corners by small brick pillars or columns of tiles (reminding me of the layered monoliths in Zumthor’s Thermen). The hollow space was extended by terracotta flues integrated in the walls and ending by means of vents in the roof.
Because of the heat the Caldarium was less decorated then the Frigidarium and the Tepidarium, and by that space is emphasized more on itself. A space that could have been a set of piled up geometric blocks developed by the German educator Friedrich Fröbel ; rectangular prism, half of a cylinder, quarter sphere and triangular prism. The simplicity of this kind of “reasonable” engineered architecture affects me, the geometry unintended referring to archetypical shapes. Due to the warm surfaces of floor and walls, the moderate scale, the humidity, the niche and vaulted ceiling, the interior appears to be like a womblike shelter (see image gallery B).
After the gradual decline of the Roman reign the practice of bathing got lost in the Western part of its colonies. In the Eastern regions however, – Minor Asia and along the coasts of the Mediterranean and the Black Sea -, the Roman bathing culture was inherited and reinterpreted by the Muslims. Beside some substantive shifts, – bathing was regarded as spiritual cleansing and preparation -, the main change was another procedure and organization of the space. The warm room became the heart of a central organized bathing complex always crowned by a magnificent cupola, or groin or rib vault. In the Hammam, the Turkish bath, the center of the warm room (Sicaklik) was in addition accentuated by a marble octagonal platform (Gobek Tasi). This elevated and heated platform is suitable for laying or getting a massage, the human body becoming the navel of the space (see image gallery A).
As in the Roman Caldarium the spatial appearances of these hot areas are geometric, pure and simple, encompassing and protective, the refined details and decoration being of secondary importance. It is however the light again that gives these spaces its vibrating atmosphere. Small star-shaped perforations are dotted according to a geometrical pattern over the cupola (5). On top of these, on the outside of the lead covered domes, skylights in belled glass catch the light from every direction and reflect it inside. In the misty dusk inside these translucent rays of light appear and disappear, revealing textures and reliefs.
(A / © Fernando Molerez)
Zumthors Thermen trace back to both traditions ; the Roman engineering and the Turkish delight of filtering and modeling the light. The separate units that Zumthor developed in layered Quartzite, pieces of an orthogonal puzzle, are positioned with small light joints inbetween. Through these joints, covered with glass on the upper outside level, the sunlight infiltrates the space below, leaving cone-shaped prints on the layered walls. Engineering and lighting unified in one concept.
Time to enter the space below, to linger between these Quartzite monoliths. Time to descend the “processional stairs”, towards the baths.
Unlike the Muslim tradition, which regarded stagnant water as unhealthy, but as in the Roman concept of bathing, pools are present in the design of Zumthor (6). Indeed, the Thermae are build on top of a hot spring, so the water in the pools is flowing and by that constantly purifying itself. The pools could be seen as part of a meandering river that finds it way between rocks and through caves, the crystal clear water pauzing in small underground lakes. A central inside pool seems to fill the space between some stone massifs. Having a better look, this square pool dialogues with these surrounding volumes, organizing them in order to obscure all outside reference.
Finally, water and space, flowing amongst the solid blocks, find their way out in an outside larger pool and, the perspective still framed by the outer Quartzite monoliths, the overwhelming Swiss Alps are revealed.
Zumthor created a landscape in a landscape. Walls, steps, basins, floors, … all are sculptured out of the same local Quartzite. An orthogonal underground setting of canyons and caves, embedded into the hillside. How impressive and immeasurable the surrounding mountains are, the dimensions of that inner landscape stay protective. So again, it’s all about proportion, how openness and enclosure relate to each other, and by interfering creating rhythm. View and darkness, space and massiveness, void and solid, fluidity and consistence, the cold snow and the hot water, silence and sound, the gaps between the notes, the echo fading. According to the length of intervals or interventions a rhythm appears.
I guess absolute silence doesn’t exist or at least it must feel very uncomfortable, implying complete isolation. What we call silence is perhaps the presence of some natural sounds which we cannot locate in space, such as a breeze, distant sea waves, … Perhaps we call silence when we hear sounds that are timeless, ever continuing, as a far surrounding background.
There is a moment in nature when the night animals stop making noise and the day animals didn’t wake up yet or vice versa ; the magical “blue hour”, the twilight moment around sunset or dawn with its very specific light conditions.
But in this ultimate silence, when both day and night are still sleeping, others rhythms appear. We hear our breath, our heartbeat, … Silence means rhythm ; the pulsating rhythm of silence.
In the architecture of the Thermen Zumthor created space for these natural rhythms, cyclical rhythms and processes. Some of them are visible as the continuous flowing water of the thermal source, others, as the sedimentation of the minerals, take some decades. The whole bathing complex looks like it outlived for centuries, originating from the same period as the mountains were shaped. The layered Quartzite, the quarry-like appearance, the moulding water, … suggest these geological processes. The rotational positioning of the stairs and threshold zones around the central pool remind me of the wheel of time.
Besides its “natural history”, the Thermen incorporate a long tradition of bathing that traces back to Roman Antiquity. And there are more historical links. Inside the Quartzite monoliths Zumthor created small spaces and baths which address a specific sense. Two of them, a hot 42°C bath and a cold 10°C bath, are realized with surfaces in smooth in situ concrete. In the first one this concrete is painted red, in the latter blue. Zumthor connects warm temperature with red, and cold with blue. By that he refers to the more or less forgotten colour theory of Goethe. Goethe wanted to counter Newton and his empiric experiments with an approach more based on subjective human experiences and perception. Goethe drew his colour wheel by differentiating two kind of colours, warm and cold ; yellow to red and blue to violet. According to Goethe these colours, in additive colour mixing, are the result of the interaction of light and darkness through a semi-transparent (glass) medium. In the first case light is darkened looking through the medium (could be the atmosphere), in the other case darkness appears coloured through the medium which itself is illumined by a light striking on it. Of course this theory was never taken seriously, but all those who refer to this point of view on colour-research, from Ludwig Wittgenstein to Joseph Beuys and now Zumthor, make of course a statement. The human condition, the human experience, was the first concern of Zumthor while designing these thermal baths.
There is a limited use of colour in the grayish Thermen, but the way there are applied refer explicitly to Goethe’s interpretation. The flower-like lights outside on the grass-roof, shining through the square holes above the main inside swimming pool have a blue filter, the suspended incandescent bulbs inside are dimmed and spread an orange glow.
The spaces I like the most in the Thermen are the Turkish baths. There are two series of them mirrored like twins, next to each other. Each one consists of a central corridor divided in 3 sequential spaces preceded by a shower room (No.30 on the floorplan (6)). The sections are separated by black rubber curtains and each of them contains two horizontal monoliths in black terrazzo concrete flanking the corridor. These dark spaces, the concrete walls painted black, are filled with vapour. The narrow beams of the successive downlights in the corridor bring the steamy atmosphere and its humid particles alive. The rectangular monoliths have the dimensions of a laying body and of course they refer to the Gobek Tasi, but moreover, because of their curved corners they remind me of the Etruscan sarcophagi (8). Only here, in these catacombs, the angular edges of the concrete blocks are rounded as the sculptured cushions on which the Etruscan spouses are depicted. Here the stone becomes flesh. “Lithos sarcophagus”; the stone (lithos) eating (phagein) the body (sarx), the flesh-eating-stone.
The sarcophagi are located one step higher than the corridor, but at the same time they look elevated because of a recessed joint around their bottom. A small detail but a world of difference.
I turn a brass handle and spray with a black rubber hose the upper side of the monolith with water, wipe it off and lay down on the warm surface. In this bunker like corridor the heat appears to come from the earth itself. I sweat and feel one with the stone.
Calming down, still more than before. These spaces effectuate silence. Memories start crossing my mind. I hear the music of Bruckner to which I always listen driving through the Alps, towards the Mediterranean ; archaic, primary, brutal, monumental. Strings and brass. Monumental intervals of silence. I hear these compulsive rhythms, but then the sounds fade away. I have to think about Socrates and his apology. As I remember well he described death as a condition of deep sleep.
Laying on my back, palms of my hands down. I spread my fingers and touch the black tomb. Other thoughts, dreamy thoughts, images. In this misty, kinky and even morbid atmosphere the naked human body has something intriguing, of course sensual and erotic, but also referring to another understanding, another condition, “la condition humaine”. Against these soft and surrounding black shades, all the attention goes to the silhouette of the human body, to the human skin and its topography. In this dark grisaille the body on itself becomes a landscape ; pale, peach, high and seal brown, …, marvellous gradations of skin tone, tight and wrinkled, … Dark grey textures and black nuances take care of young and old, of those who walk straight and those leaning forward a bit. I imagine shadows dwelling in the reign of Hades, the human angels in “Himmel uber Berlin” speaking in tongues, the end scene of “Space Odyssey” ; a double bed, a deathbed (1). Another setting appears in my mind ; another double bed slightly elevated in a white room, but instead of a black monolyth, opposite the bed, there is a panoramic window with open curtains, a view in the morning ; some ordinary roofs, skyline with water tower, a clear blue sky. As Goethe should say ; darkness seen through a touch of light. A small seat aside to enjoy the morning sun. Edward Hopper incorporated. Could have been paradise. Could have been … Ha, to meet old Goethe there.
These spaces tend to be claustrophobic, but on the contrary, it is pleasant to have these reminiscences here, down deep, in the steamy heat of the earth itself. Protected by the night, darkness again, closed eyes and just listening. Small sounds denounce who entered. The elderly sit or lay with a longer sigh, breath with longer breaks.
Dreamy and vaguely hearing. Somebody enters again in this last compartment. I feel like a little rascal, she, being unaware of my secret attention. She moves to the other, empty, stone. I don’t open my eyes, but I know, I recognize her silhouette and sense the colour of her skin. I imagine she is my guardian angel. Of course it’s her, but not a word. The same handlings, she wipes off the water with slow arm sweeps. A veil of water molecules whirls around in the air. I lay and breath. First she sits with her back against the black wall, the knees pulled towards her chest. Aside, outside these flirting beams of the lights, drops of water, drops of sweat, not even a sigh, a vibrating silence. I hear the breath of the other, her breath, my own pulsating heart. Silence again. We lay together now, two tombs. An Etruscan couple. Being part of the pulsating veins of this building, this orthogonal body. I hear the rhythm of silence.
I have to brake suddenly. It started raining and I was driving too fast. The rain is at least something natural on these highways. The fairy tale-like setting of the midnight session and the lively apparition in the Turkish baths, already memories, vanish.
On the right track, but feeling lost. Where is my guardian angel ? Back in reality, another rhythm. Well …, what kind of reality ?
The building Zumthor created is both magic and strongly down to earth. Again, the Roman engineering spirit and the Arab refinement, Turkish delight. Tasting and touching space. Here, naked and next to the Quartzite, we sense again essence, our basic needs, the basic need for shelter and being together.
The moments we swam in the night, in the fog and between the snowflakes, in the fresh air, the really fresh air, time was absent. The moments on the black stone, I could have fallen asleep and perhaps I did. These moments affected me and despite time passes by, a gentle mood stays, will stay.
Jan Dekeyser | Monday nov. 11th 2013
(B / Caldarium of Forum Baths in Pompeii, medieval manuscripts / Fröbel blocks / Etruscan sarcophagus)
(Baths in Granada, Spain / © Jan Dekeyser)
“Ephemeral Steams“, black and white pictures by Fernando Molerez (A) / http://www.fernandomoleres.com/main/index.php/stories/hammams-2#M119-Hammams_17
“Turkish Baths, a guide to the Historic Turkish Baths of Istanbul“, Orhan Yilmazkaya | Citlembik LTD 2003, ISBN 975-6663-27-8.
“The Arabian Antiquities of Spain, The Alhambra“, James Cavanah Murphy | London 1813 / Editorial Procyra sa 1987, ISBN 84-36320-16-X.
“Pompeii ; It’s life and Art“, August Mau | New York, The Macmillan Company 1899 (2nd edition 1907) / translated by Francis W.Kelsey.