In 2013 Podia’s Max Burgess cycled to Switzerland with a friend to visit a building that they had studied about. The text below is an article he wrote about the adventure for issue IX of The Ride Journal, a published collection of short cycling stories accompanied by beautiful illustrations.
Words by Max Burgess
It was the last leg of our seven-day pilgrimage from London Fields Lido to Peter Zumthor’s Therme in Vals, Switzerland. This was the final 54km of a trip laden with issues and set backs that embodied adventure at it’s finest.
Will and myself studied architecture at London Metropolitan University where we had been taught to hold Zumthor’s work in high esteem. To such an extent that we had spent 8 months after graduating plotting a pilgrimage to a building largely believed to be his finest. This pilgrimage would take us across France and most of Switzerland providing various architectural pit stops including Corbusier’s Notre Dame du Haut in Ronchamp as well as the Vitra design museum by Basel. We felt this undertaking needed to be given a name and settled on ‘Baths 2 Baths’ with London Fields lido to be the starting point. The initial intention to swim at the start as well as the end was thwarted by London’s temperamental weather.
And now the culmination of the previous 6 days, 1,026km, 11,829m of ascent and many hours of suffering had led us to this moment, architectural journeymen, cycling brothers in arms.
Except it seemed we were not. I’m not sure at which point we separated but the unintentional riding apart during the previous couple of days somehow felt in line with what we were experiencing. The act of pilgrimage is by it’s very nature spiritual and the closer we got to our destination and the harder the journey became the more these moments felt like they should be experienced alone – which is not something I normally advocate while cycling. We had enjoyed the first half of the trip together, battling through incandescent weather in a country where closing restaurants and cafes during lunch is the done thing, making it almost impossible to eat properly for such a physical test.
Crawling up a mountain shrouded in the kind of fog that allows only a glimmer of what is just in front of you, riding alone baring the eerie sound of cow bells only a short distance away and having to replenish water supplies from a stream by the road. Somehow, the solitude felt right.
Maybe it was the anticipation of reaching our destination. Anxious about how a building we had put on a pedestal by making this pilgrimage would repay this faith. To some extent we had already faced anticlimax arriving at the Notre Dame du Haut visitor centre where at the end of a tough climb we hoped Corbusier’s building would present itself through the trees, but were instead dumped in front of Renzo Piano’s later addition that needed to be navigated through before finally laying eyes upon Notre Dame du Haut.
It raised an interesting question as the pedals rotated at a steady pace from Ilanz to the end of the mountain road in Vals. How does such dedication to a building affect how you experience it. Does the experience have to be something akin to perfection after such a journey or does the struggle weigh into heighten the experience of the building, making it more special than if we had just driven up the previous 54km.
The Therme in Vals has an interesting story. In the 1980’s the village bought up surrounding hotels from a bankrupt developer and rather progressively commissioned Peter Zumthor to create a building that would draw visitors to their area, nestled in the Swiss mountains. The now famous adage ‘build it and they will come’ seemed to pay off. But arriving at the hotel which forms the welcoming stage for the therme is like stepping back into the 1960’s. While still quite tasteful as a zeitgeist of it’s time, it is not quite the anticipated entrance to a building of one of the worlds best architects.
Yet, what could have been an anti-climax was instead the elation of reaching our destination. Not even walking through the slightly tired hotel reception could dampen my mood and arriving at the bar terrace where Will was waiting with two cold beers signaled the end of an unforgettable experience.
An afternoon and an evening were devoted to exploring and relaxing in the therme, switching between swimming and sleeping in the sun, to exploring the number of different water-themed treats. The best of which was seeing how long each other could last in the 42 degree fire pool without fainting before quickly plunging into the 14 degree ice pool. The perfect tonic for road weary legs.
Recuperating in the healing mountain waters we mused that it was indeed the best architecture we had witnessed. But was this the reality or a reality augmented by propelling ourselves across multiple countries on our trusty steel steeds in homage to a building?
This and more articles can be found in the Ride Journal Issue IX available in the Podia | Shop. We would like to offer a 20% discount on the magazine until 3rd December 2015. Just use the promotional code RJIssueIX.