A Natural Beauty
Richter et Dahl Rocha's thalassotherapy and wellness center rejuvenates Clinique La Prairie, a world-class medical spa on Switzerland's Lake Geneva
Donna Paul -- Interior Design, 6/1/2006 12:00:00 AM
For decades, the rich and powerful have come to the town of Clarens, on Switzerland's Lake Geneva, in search of the fountain of youth. In the 1930's, when Clinique La Prairie opened its doors, luminaries in crepe de chine dresses or double-breasted wool suits would arrive in plush Pullman cars and Maybach Zeppelins. Everyone from Marlene Dietrich to King Ibnsaud of Saudi Arabia was there, lured by such exotic house specialties as injections of sheep-fetus serum. As the decades passed, the trains gave way to planes and crepe de chine to chinos, but the famous kept coming. (Think Charlie Chaplin and Charles de Gaulle.) The medical spa now attracts a mostly European, Russian, and Chinese clientele-interested in plastic surgery, hydrotherapy, and slimming regimes as well as those famous sheep-extract shots.
Sometimes, however, even a spa could use a face-lift-in this case a $40 million thalassotherapy and wellness center by Richter et Dahl Rocha Bureau d'Architectes. Clinique La Prairie owner Armin Mattli, who launched La Prairie beauty products in 1978 and sold the company for a fortune six years later, had seen Jacques Richter and Ignacio Dahl Rocha's arresting Nestlé headquarters in Vevey, Switzerland, and contacted them immediately. "They presented only one concept, and it was the one we chose," Mattli says. After that, progress slowed down considerably. The architects devoted a year to hashing out zoning restrictions and permit problems, then two more years to constructing the 80,000-square-foot building.
RDR's greatest challenge-and greatest achievement-was to integrate the new design into a disparate collection of buildings: a 19th-century château-cum-hotel, a conventional residence from 1929, and a glass medical tower from 1991. On a literal level, that integration meant joining the spa to the medical center by a tunnel and to the château and residence by enclosed passages. "Arms reach out toward the existing buildings to connect them," Richter says. So, even in inclement weather, guests can walk between treatments in comfort.
Stylistic integration was equally important. "We developed a new typology of building, one that responds to functional requirements as well as becoming part of the landscape," Dahl Rocha says. The long, low structure hugs the contours of the hillside site. "It's almost sunken, a device to link what was there," he explains.
Connection to the breathtaking natural setting is evident in the spa's dramatic facade of dry-stacked granite. Called Verde Andeer-for its greenish-gray cast and place of origin in the tiny Swiss village of Andeer, near the Italian border-the stone references the walls in local vineyards, and its centuries-old look contributes to the medieval air of the narrow windows cut into the spa's 16-inch-thick facade. Meanwhile, the spa's roof is almost entirely planted with grass, an eco-conscious move that also creates, from above, the suggestion that the building grew out of the ground. "It melts into the landscape," Dahl Rocha says. The grassy surface is interrupted by volcanolike tiled shapes: the sloping surrounds of skylights above the main swimming pool.
The sun shines through those skylights and into the pool, creating a soothing interplay. Light and water are powerful presences elsewhere, too.
One level below, RDR covered a wall by the saltwater thalassotherapy pool in pâte de verre tiles, known for their delicate translucence. Windows in the hallway nearby are surrounded by the same tiny glass mosaic tiles, in light-as-air shades of turquoise, cerulean, and cloud.
The halls, the lobby, and the bar have limestone floors. When wood appears, it's dark-stained oak-for example, all treatment rooms feature oak cabinetry. On top of one room's cabinet sits a Thai brass statue of Buddha, another recurring theme. Contemporary marble Buddha heads line the wall of the staircase that leads up to the main pool.
There, instead of contemplating sacred Mount Meru, they gaze, through three glazed elevations, at the snow-capped Alps.