Dutch architect Bjarne Mastenbroek of Amsterdam-based SeARCH visited Villa Vals as one of those tourists in the late 1990s. Taken by the awe-inspiring landscape and surprised to discover that it was possible to build up to three stories on the almost-hallowed ground next to the baths, he began investigating erecting a house there. But to purchase land in the area, which is dominated by traditional timber-and-stone farmhouses, required Swiss citizenship. Mastenbroek partnered with Rotterdam-based architect Christian Müller (who is Swiss by birth), and, while financing the project himself, brought in a group of silent owners.
In keeping with Mastenbroek and Müller’s characteristic approach of integrating architecture into the landscape or urban fabric, the team first focused on keeping the view across the valley open, not only for their residence, but also for the baths, which sit catty-corner up the hillside. They envisioned a subterranean building, one with intertwined interior spaces that would fit together like the pieces of puzzle. “We knew we would not be able to build this house in the Swiss style — in a perfectionist way,” says Mastenbroek, citing financial constraints and noting that it wouldn’t be as compelling a solution. “You can never compete with the thermal baths’ perfection — that radical, minimal, pure approach,” he says. “So we went for a more experimental, almost industrial building. We developed a kind of nonperfection that was interesting for us, and we collaborated with other designers from the Netherlands to make a Dutch interior.”
Though experimental, the house also embraces local building traditions, most notably with its facade, made from split stone recovered from the site — the ubiquitous Valser quartzite of the thermal baths and Vals rooftops — and by incorporating an existing structure on the site. Originally, the limit of the plot for sale by a local farmer ran right through one of the simple stone-and-wood bi-level livestock barns that are emblematic of the Alpine hillsides. To safeguard the barn, the property line was redrawn and the architects incorporated the building into their plan, shoring it up, pouring a new concrete floor and stair, and using it as a mudroom that connects to the house by way of a 72-foot-long, stepped concrete tunnel.
From the article Villa Vals. By Beth Broome
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