A spa by Behnisch Architekten bursts onto the scene in sleepy Bad Aibling, Germany
Mairi Beautyman -- Interior Design, 2/1/2008 12:00:00 AM
Bad Aibling sprang, quite literally, from the boggy Bavarian soil. In 1845, a German doctor, Desiderius Beck, began covering his patients with peat pulp from the marsh near his home, about 20 miles southeast of Munich. The treatment, extolled for its healing properties, soon became a major draw. But it wasn't until 2000 that drilling brought thermal water to the town, transforming it into a popular destination for a "cure," a spa retreat often covered by the national health-care system.
There are several small medical clinics in town but only one spa, Therme Bad Aibling. It originally comprised just a small sauna and an indoor ice rink, set on 9 acres. Then Behnisch Architekten won a competition for a dome-adelic expansion.
"The dome is a traditional element in hammams or the spas in Budapest. Without being too historical, the choice made sense to us," Stefan Behnisch explains. All eight of Therme Bad Aibling's domes, each unique, are integrated into Behnisch's new main building, which features a 690-foot-wide expanse of steel-framed glass along the rear—with a swimming pool right outside.
Domes inside the main building contain different spa experiences, with their own New Agey names. Of course, the dome shape's major benefit for a spa is energy savings, up to 40 percent if compared to an orthogonal volume of similar magnitude, Behnisch says. "Water attractions require humid air at a temperature very close to the water temperature to avoid evaporation," he continues. "Here, the water is under the domes, so areas outside can remain at comfortable levels of heat and humidity."
Six of the eight domes are insulated concrete lined with acoustical material. The Hot-Cold Dome is frosted acrylic sprinkled with a pattern of clear dots. And the Hammam Dome's gold-painted polystyrene foam recalls the storied Turkish baths of Constantinople.
At 52 feet in diameter, the Dome of Experience and the Dome of the Senses are the largest and perhaps the most spectacular of the baths. The former, which Behnisch calls "active," includes a round mosaic-tiled whirlpool rising 4 feet above the rest of the water. Ripples from the jets and massage ducts bounce off the whirlpool's blue-and-white surface, throwing reflections on the cobalt blue and white ceiling tile. The surrounding pool, like all pools on the site, is the color of an Alpine lake, an effect created by light-blue tile on the bottom and white tile on the sides.
At the entrance to the Dome of the Senses, with pools to the left and right, stands an 11-foot-tall perforated Corian structure. Inside it, between the Corian and the solid walls of a steam bath, is a gap big enough to insert lighting, so the whole volume acts as a "magic lantern" for bathers outside to soak up, Behnisch says. There's also a surprise for their sense of hearing: underwater instrumental music.
Slightly smaller, at 40 feet in diameter, is the pale emerald-painted Thermal Dome. Piped-in water, naturally 90 degrees Fahrenheit, flows around fiberglass "reeds" fitted with white LEDs. And elliptical windows offer spa-goers a view of the garden.
The circulation areas between these "wet" domes have milled-granite flooring. Behnisch changed to thermal ash or smoked oak in the two "dry" domes. In the Relaxation Dome, nature films are projected across the ceiling while toweled-off visitors lounge on beanbags or deck chairs with woven-plastic seats. The four-story Beauty-Wellness Dome is the most typically "feminine." Floral curtains separate the treatment stations—one of which, intended for couples, features gold, white, and red wall tile and rose petals floating in a small pool.
Adjacent to the main building, set on an angle, Behnisch built a much larger sauna building in glass and spruce—for a total square footage of 16,000 for the facility. This second structure faces south to maximize views of the Alps as well as solar gain during the winter. In the summertime, a 10-foot overhang shades the interior, which houses six saunas. For the other three, you have to brave the elements. (Easily managed after sitting in temperatures of nearly 200 degrees.) Glass doors swing open to the garden, and a concrete path winds its way past one of the property's outdoor swimming pools to the two new sauna cabins.
Each has its own outdoor shower and is built of a different wood. Constructed in Finland from kelo pine, with its silver patina and earthy scent, one cabin was dismantled piece by piece, shipped to Germany, and rebuilt. The nearby spruce cabin cantilevers over the Triftbach river. Inside, stepped seating and strategically placed windows allow a contemplative view of the river, no matter where you're sitting.
Besides physical buildings, the sauna and bathing zones of Therme Bad Aibling are divided by two factors. One is cost: Four hours of bathing or saunas is the equivalent of $19; for both, it's $29. The other is dress: Patrons wear swimsuits in the bathing areas. For a sauna, it's birthday suits.